Walking a mile in a refugee’s shoes

By Niall McKenna

Most Canadians can hardly imagine being a refugee, torn apart from family, community and livelihood. But 35 local students can.

Calgary students, including several from the University of Calgary, took part in the 24 Hour Exile, organized by the local Canadian Red Cross office. The participants gathered at a pre-determined location north of Calgary on Sat., Oct. 13. They were ushered onto a bus, driven to a camp at an undisclosed location and given character profiles detailing their refugee status and plight. For the next 24 hours, "refugees" were abused by military forces, and had their belongings seized.

Participant Kirk McDonald heard about the camp through a co-worker at the YMCA.

"I had no idea, really, what I was getting into," he said.  McDonald added that understanding the plight of refugees was important to him, especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

During the simulation, organizers attempted to simlate the conditions of refugee travel. As the participants’ bus approached the camp, it was stopped by military forces demanding identifica-tion. "Refugees" cooperated, allowing the "soldiers" to search their belongings and take away all luxury items.  Two were taken off the bus as refugees would be, their fate unknown.  Further down the road, everyone was forced off the bus.

"You are here because we are nice enough to let you be here," barked one role-playing military commander.

Now on foot and accompanied by Red Cross representatives, the participants followed a series of unforgiving trails, and were harassed by rebel forces along the way.

As evening and cold approached, participants were finally allowed to eat. Rations for each "refugee" consisted of only rice and a few lentils. They are told a truck carrying food rations hit an anti-tank mine and there is not enough food for everyone, and half were told they cannot eat. Real refugees will receive similar rations, but sometimes even less.

While the young people who lived through the 24 Hour Exile will never forget the plight refugees face, they are a minority.

"The group that is here is probably not the group that should be here," said McDonald, suggesting that apathy and misunderstanding about refugees is everywhere.

According to the UNHCR, there are about 15 million refugees in the world today.  An additional 10 million people are asylum seekers and internally displaced people.

Partial funding for the 24 Hour Exile was provided by the U of C Students’ Union Committee of 10,000, which allocates money to charitable organizations in the Calgary community.  Assistance was also given by the U of C Red Cross Club.

Questions about the 24 Hour Exile can be directed to the Canadian Red Cross at 541-6100.

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