Enlightenment through experience

By Zachary Barton

We lived off rice and lentils, slept in a canvas tent under the cold October sky, trekked many miles and fought the harsh climate of the Alberta Rockies. The cameras were constantly on us as we struggled to achieve the ultimate goal. One million dollars? Not even close. The goal was to better understand the lifestyle of 14 million refugees worldwide.

The 24 Hour Exile is a Red Cross program designed to simulate the conditions found in one day of a refugee’s life. From the harsh climate, to the lack of food and water, to the military mistreatment and the continual abuse of women, these 24 hours took 37 people far outside their comfort zone.

The day began at 6:45 a.m. with 37 eager refugee wannabes on a bus bound for Kananaskis Country. Upon arriving at the first checkpoint, we were immediately inundated by military forces that proceed to harass, interrogate and take any of our belongings they felt were unnecessary or wanted to have for themselves. We were then broken into two groups and began trekking from our homeland to find a border crossing that would accept our dispossessed selves.

We marched for hours in search of an open refugee camp, but were only met by minefields, closed borders and more looting soldiers, who took our supplies, our dignity, and in one case members of our group. A sense of frustration and anger set in, only to be replaced by hopelessness and hunger.

We eventually found the Red Cross Refugee Camp, which luckily had room for our group. Upon arrival we were introduced to the tiring process of registering as official refugees and finding family members who may have been abducted or displaced along the way. The refugee camp was a place where we knew we would be safe from the social or political hardships of our homeland, however, our journey was just beginning. We spent the rest of the day rationing food and dealing with the absolute boredom that comes when you have nothing to do but wait.

Our day-long adventure ended with a campfire and special guest speakers who shared their stories and experiences of working in refugee camps, both abroad and here in Canada. Their words were meant to educate, but for me they were inspiring. We were a group who started out with no idea of what lay ahead now aware of the need for action locally as well as globally.

I would not insult any refugee by claiming those 24 hours allowed me to come close to understanding what they go through. No matter what happened to me, I knew I was coming home the next day. What I do know is that I learned to be thankful for not just what I have, but that should all use the advantages we are blessed with to their fullest. We should use the freedom we take for granted to better ourselves and the world around us. It is hard to experience the harsh lifestyle that many of our fellow brothers and sisters live in. It is even harder to sit around and do nothing about it at all.

Feedback on this article can be sent to opinions@gauntlet.ucalgary.ca.

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