It's nine o'clock on a Friday morning and I'm sitting with a group of Spokane Public Schools teachers and staff in a room ringed by colorful flags from around the world. They’re here to take place in a Refugee Simulation put on by World Relief Spokane and led by simulation coordinator Dick Mandeville.
"You'll be assigned to a family group. You'll gather together with a blue duffel bag containing clothes and a book of your family's history," Mandeville explained. "The family's book has the history and the family makeup, as each of you will be role-playing a refugee living in a camp, applying for resettlement in the United States."
The Spokane Public School teachers and staff in the classroom that Friday had volunteered to give up a few hours of their summer break in an attempt to gain some first-hand knowledge of the refugee experience through a World Relief Simulation.
Among the participants were two school secretaries, Ginger and Jody, from Sheridan Elementary who said they have several refugee students in their school each year.
"Having a little bit more compassion and understanding," Jody said, explaining her reasons for participating in the simulation.
"And to possibly help them build some trust in us knowing that we have now seen what they have to go through," Ginger added. "But I agree, it's just to have a better understanding so that we can help them."
After the introductory slideshow with facts and information about refugees worldwide and in the Inland Northwest, I was grouped with Ginger and Jody along with Chris Kalstad, an elementary music teacher, and Tracie Fowler, a school social worker, into a family group. After only a few short minutes to get our family story straight and each other’s names, ages, and characteristics, we were taken to the first station, a one-on-one interview with a UN refugee screener.
I was given the persona of Ajmal, a seventeen year-old boy from Afghanistan. I did my best to remember my backstory and imagined the intense fear and anxiety that must accompany an interview like this one when a family’s future and safety are on the line.
"You are Ajmal?" The interviewer asked.
"I am," I said.
"How old are your siblings?"
I hesitated. "Um... my brother Mohammed is fifteen, Mapikar, my sister, is ... I'm sorry, no, Mohammed is 16, and Mapikar is 15."
"Interesting, so you didn't know at first," The interview said.
Needless to say, my interview skills were not perfect. I felt flustered and second-guessed myself over even the simplest questions. Things did not get much better from there. Our second station was a medical interview, run by a doctor who seemed, realistically, overworked and disinterested in making our family feel comfortable.
He handed me a medical form and let me know that the results of the examination would affect my chances of resettlement. The form was written in a language I did not understand, an intentional choice to simulate the experience of a confusing medical form in language not your own. There were a few lines I could make out based on context—name, address, that kind of thing—but on the whole, I was stumped. I stared at the paper for a few moments before making a plea for help.
"Do you have this in another language," I asked.
"No," the doctor responded curtly. "Is there a problem?"
"I don't understand it," I admitted.
"That's not my problem," he replied.
Together my family members and I stumbled through the form. Making our best guesses at the information to include on each line. We certainly weren’t able to convey much meaningful information about our health. The doctor looked skeptically at the half-filled form, checked each of us in turn for head lice, and sent us on our way to the third station—a language class.
The teacher stood at the head of the class, I assumed welcoming us, but I had no idea what she was saying. After the simulation, I learned that she was speaking to us in Russian, but at the time I was completely lost. Finally, after a few awkward moments, I caught on. Of course! It was the first day of class, and the teacher was asking for my name. I responded, grateful to have made a small breakthrough. Soon, we moved to other basics, including the alphabet.
The language station was perhaps the most coherent part of the refugee simulation at World Relief for me. A classroom was at least an environment I could relate to, even if the subject matter was foreign. I settled in and though I was still confused for most of the lesson, I stumbled through the alphabet and learned a few basic words. But just as I was starting to feel comfortable, the lesson ended and we were shuttled to our fourth and final station of the refugee simulation, a shelter and food station.
"Water is nearby somewhere," said the volunteer at the food station, "I'm going to send the men to go get water. And unfortunately the shipment of rice we got has a bunch of rocks in it. They tried to weigh it down when they sold it to us. So we need to sift through the rice. I'll have the women help sift the rice."
My brother, Mohammed and I went in search of water. It turned out, the only source in the building was in the bathroom, a hand-washing sink which was much too small to fit the bucket we’d been given. It was another challenge. Once again, we had to use the limited resources available to us to solve a problem. The solution we devised was scooping water with our cupped hands from the sink into the metal bucket. The process was time consuming, messy, and we felt more than a little embarrassed when someone came in to use the restroom halfway through. But we persevered and filled the bucket. When we returned to the group, the women had finished sifting the rice, and we were given our rations for the upcoming week—a small bag of rice, and some beans, along with our bucket of water.
This station marked the end of the refugee simulation experience run by World Relief Spokane. After four stations—a UN Interview, a medical exam, a language class, and a food and shelter station—we returned to the classroom where we’d begun to debrief with Dick Mandeville, simulations coordinator for World Relief Spokane.
"Let me ask you to describe your experience in one word," Madeville said.
"Humiliating," answered one teacher.
"Really invasive," said another participant.
"Frightening," said a third.
"What our clients tell us is that we cannot make the volunteers be as tough as what they experienced," Madeville explained. "So what you went through is based on their experience and what they told us they've gone through."
After the group was dismissed, I caught up again with Ginger and Jody, the school secretaries from Sheridan Elementary who I met at the beginning.
"I learned a lot about what refugees go through," Jody said "Especially the interview. It's very intense when they're asking you questions. It just seems like sometimes they're trying to make you get confused or make a mistake. So it was very nerve-wracking."
"I feel the same," Ginger chimed in. "Just a complete admiration for them. Because after going through what we went through today, you'd have to be a very strong person to go from point A to point B. I'm just going to be more attentive to their needs and concerns. And make them feel welcome. Make them understand that we're here to help them."
After going through this three-hour simulation, trying to get some small sense of what refugees experience, I also wanted to know what parts of the refugee process were most difficult to convey, even in a simulation.
"The hardest part to convey is how incredibly complicated and thorough the process is that refugees have to go through in order to be approved to come to the United States," Dick Mandeville explained. "To get here, they're reviewed by eight agencies, six databases, three interviews, and if they mess up during that process, they're not going to go to the end of the line, they're just not going to get into the United States because the process is so thorough. Since the program began in the late 1970s, early 1980s, the United States resettlement program has let over three million people into the United States. There has not been one terrorist-related death connected to any one of those three million people. So I hope people leave with an understanding of what a challenge it is for people. And that these are people, if they knew them and knew their stories, they'd want them in this community."
This is the Inland Journal from Spokane Public Radio. Thanks to Andrew Goodwin and Dick Mandeville from World Relief Spokane and to Spokane Public Schools for their generosity in allowing me to take part in and record the refugee simulation.
This story is part of a series on Spokane Public Radio we’re calling “Refugee Stories” you can find more stories in the series here: spokanepublicradio.org/term/refugee-stories.