The students were dropped off on the side of the road with all of their belongings in two garbage bags. They were given directions by the staff in foreign languages and made to walk in a single file line across a bridge, a ‘border’ to another country. They walked about 1.5 km and were stopped intermittently and were asked to sit down and wait for long periods of time without explanation. Once we reached the ‘camp,’ they were asked to complete a registration form that was composed in very broken English script. They were made to sit outside the barbed wire gate into the refugee camp and allowed to enter only one at a time. The entire registration process took nearly 2.5 hours. Again, without English, their bags were examined for food, watches, and cell phones. They were made to place one bag of emergency clothes into a trailer to be kept dry. They were issued a sleeping bag, small tarp, sleeping bag liner, a plastic bowl and spoon, and a few people from each group were given bags of muesli for breakfast. The distribution areas were designed to be confusing and the order unclear to build a sense of uncertainty and a lack of control.
The group was separated into ‘families,’ with whom they were mostly unfamiliar. If they had checked any number of diseases on their application for asylum card, they were held in quarantine and approached only with medical masks covering the instructors’ faces. Each group was moved to a location on our national base where they would not be in contact with one another. On arrival to the campsite, they were given no instructions, simply a written statement with guidelines such as water purification and staying within the boundaries of their camp due to hazards in the area. They were given several hours to construct a shelter given the minimal materials at hand.
Each afternoon, an instructor would arrive with work to be done in the camp. One group was responsible for making cheese, another for assembling blankets from scraps of material, another for gathering wood and another for planting trees in the refugee camp. In exchange for their work, each group was given some type of food – couscous or vegetables or salt, etc. The groups would then negotiate with one another at a daily market in order to acquire necessities for cooking an evening meal. They would then cook over a campfire with their limited amenities, then head for their shelters as they had no lights with which to see after the sun set.
One of the strengths of this experience is how real it can feel to the group. There are real consequences that can play out – if the shelter is poorly constructed and it rains, the group will be cold and wet; if the group cannot start a fire to cook dinner, they will go to bed hungry; if the work is not finished, there will be nothing to consume. And there is the tedium coupled with uncertainty – a very real translation from life in a refugee camp. The debrief following the experience was full of observations of empathy and then sympathy for a situation with which millions are confronted each year. The other eye-opening moment was perhaps redefining refugee, and who is likely to become one. After the tsunami in Japan and even the recent wildfires here in Tasmania in January, the likelihood of one of us, or all of us, becoming refugees no longer seems quite too farfetched.