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Real or Not Real?

This post, written by MAA student and lab member Rebecca Alberda, describes her experience on 29 March with a Red Cross Global Refugee simulation in Washington DC.  She participated as a refugee.  The day was cold and rainy at Bull Run, VA where the exercise took place.  ~Dr. Jen Shaffer

By Rebecca Alberda

TRIGGER WARNING: Due to the nature of this topic and my decision to use exact quotes, foul language will be present in the following blog post. Additionally, while I do not believe there to be anything that would be too disturbing, anyone who has experienced a refugee situation may find the following to serve as a trigger.

Quickly I pull up my hood, keep my head facing forward, with my eyes on the ground tracking the movements of the person in front of me, submissive. Soldiers, carrying guns, run up and down our single file line, screaming, “Where the FUCK do you THINK you’re going?!” and shove whomever falls out of line. The girl in front of me mistakenly starts laughing or smiling, I am not sure which as I am more focused on not tripping and falling into the muddy stream at my feet. Her laugh results in the halting of our line, a combatant gets in her face asking “What THE FUCK do you find so funny?” She doesn’t respond and luckily he moves on. In that moment I am strongly reminded that I too, at times, respond to stress inappropriately by laughing. I quickly bite my cheeks so that I do not make the same mistake. Soon we are past this latest obstacle. We do not look back, knowing that there are more like this to come.

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“Tennis shoes or rain boots? Tennis shoes or rain boots?”, It’s a debate I have with myself for a good two days. I know that it’s most likely going to rain, but do I really want to hike for two miles in my rain boots? In the end I decide that, yes, rain boots are the correct choice. I’d rather have achy feet than soaking wet and cold feet. “What should I pack? They said anything in my bag could most likely get stolen or traded…what would I be okay with parting with?”, I choose some mismatched socks, a pair of old gloves, some food (granola bars) that I planned on dropping in the graduate lounge, an old sweatshirt from my ‘to donate’ pile, and some band-aids. I have the distinct advantage of knowing that I will most likely lose my possessions along the way, do real refugees know this when they pack up their bags to flee? I’m nervous, my nails and lips are a wreck, I don’t know what to expect, this part at least seems very real. I don’t sleep well the night before, dreaming about all the situations and scenarios I *might* find myself in. This too, is very real.

Est-ce votre famille?” The border guard screams at me in French. I don’t speak French, but I recognize the word family and go to respond “Yes,” however in that moment, my brain fails me and instead I answer “Si!” – thanks a lot brain. Fail. Despite answering in Spanish, the guard simply puffs his cigarette smoke in my face, hands back my rain soaked passport, and seemingly satisfied that I was not a combatant, waives me through to refuge.

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I am assigned a family when I arrive at the check-in point. There are seven of us, six females and one male. We are each given a story to memorize, a new name, a passport, and some (fake) money. We make decisions on who will have what, who will be in charge, and if we will talk to the press (we do not). We learn the nature of the conflict back home, why we are fleeing, which side we support, where we are going, what that country is like…the situation is dismal. We have it memorized. This will be important later, however, when under stress, our memorization will often fail us.

“Follow the footsteps of the person in front of you!”
“Look, right there, one is buried right there!”
Landmines. We step carefully, knowing that every step could be our last. So that’s why there were danger signs.

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This stupid wood is far too wet for the nails to stick properly, but somehow we manage to build our shelter. We all pile in, eat our now cold rice and beans, and watch while others struggle to build their own shelters in the pouring rain. We’ve promised one another that we wouldn’t touch the “tent,” not confident in our building skills, and have mini-heart attacks every time a UNHCR official moves the tarp to speak to us. Yet, the shelter stands firm.

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I’m cold. I’m wet. I’m very very muddy. My right rain boot has a leak in it and I’ve had to change my sock twice. But, I’ve survived. The same can’t be said for many along the journey. In fact, we have three missing in our family alone. But, we aren’t sick, or hurt. And we are together. The same can’t be said for many in this situation.

“Get off the fucking bus!”
“Move! Move! Move!”
Solider’s everywhere, pounding on the windows, shoving guns in our faces, there is smoke.
It is made clear that choosing to sit at the back of the bus was not a good choice as the soldier screams “YOU IN THE BACK, FUCKING MOVE IT! YOU’RE MOVING TOO SLOW!”
And when we finally move past him he gives us a little shove down the stairs.
We are running for our lives.

My heart starts to race with adrenaline. And though I know this is only a simulation, I am a bit nervous. I don’t know what to expect.

For more information on the Global Refugee Simulation by the American Red Cross Visit:

For more information on ways to help or get involved in the Refugee Crisis: