A group of about two dozen people gathered in McBride Hall on the St. Luke the Evangelist Parish campus in Lakewood Nov. 12 in an effort to gain a better understanding of what refugees experience when they are forced to flee their homes.
“A Journey into the Unknown: Refugee Simulation and Action” was presented by the Diocesan Social Action Office, a part of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland, and St. Luke Social Action Ministry.
Kelly Bon, director of the Diocesan Social Action Office, was the facilitator. During the program, participants experienced the journey of a Syrian refugee, learned about Church teachings on migrants and refugees, joined in prayer for our migrant neighbors and signed letters to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, advocating for refugees.
Bon explained the difference between immigrants and refugees, noting the latter are forced to leave their homeland because of a crisis like war or persecution while immigrants choose to relocate.
She shared some recent statistics that show there are more than 108 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including nearly 7 million Syrian refugees, about 6 million each Ukrainian and Afghani refugees. Since 2014, Bon said there have been more than 20,000 recorded deaths of people who died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, which is likely undercounted.
The picture is grim, she said, explaining the number of refugees continues to grow, especially with war raging in Israel, also.
Bon asked participants, who were seated in groups at tables, to imagine the plight of Syrian people as fighting grew closer to their town. With perhaps only a few minutes’ notice, they could be forced to leave their longtime homes, friends and even some family members behind.
“What would you take with you?” she asked. Each person would be permitted to take six items that they would have to carry on their journey. Those at the tables discussed the items they would take. These included cell phones, food, water, important documents like passports, medicine, some clothing or necessities for children like diapers, etc.
As the simulation progressed, Bon told them a truck would take the refugees to begin their journey to safety. However, the truck was very crowded and it broke down, so those aboard had to continue their journey on foot climbing a mountain in search of safety. The refugees weren’t able to carry everything, so they had to leave the heaviest items behind.
As they struggled on, it was harder to keep up. The weather was hot and sunny; the ground was hard since there had been no rain that year. One family member (Bon tapped someone from each group on the shoulder) injured his or her leg and was unable to continue walking. That meant two people had to carry or help the person, which mean they were unable to carry their essential items.
“You are still limited to six items per person. How will you consolidate? What will be left behind?” Bon asked, challenging each group to quickly decide.
She described the difficult journey through a thick forest that the refugees had to fight and cut through.
“Finally, you can see the sea. The injured person is feeling better so the remaining items can be split among the family members,” she said.
“You are overjoyed to see fishing boats in the bay, but they are very crowded and the families will have to split up,” she said, which adds to the stress. Each group had two minutes to decide who went together and who would carry which essentials as they tried to divide their resources in the most effective way.
“The fishermen won’t let you on their boat without some kind of payment or turning over your most valuable item as payment. What will that be?” Bon asked, giving each group a couple of minutes to decide what they will part with.
“The boats are leaving in two minutes they are very small and each person can only carry two items. What stays behind?” she said.
Finally, the boats set sail but seawater creeps in. Although the refugees can save their bags, everything is wet and some things are ruined.
At last, the exhausted refugees can see land. “It has been a terrible journey,” Bon said. “What will happen now? No one knows.”
Tapping a few people on the shoulder, she explained that some of the refugees didn’t survive the journey.
Now that they have escaped the immediate danger in their homeland, they are faced with a future of uncertainty. First, they must register with the United Nations, which involves a great deal of standing in line as they try to obtain housing, food and other necessities. Most refugees end up in a camp where they may live for about 15 years while awaiting assignment to a new country. Bon said they get no say in where they are sent.
She asked the participants how they felt when they had to pick up and leave with virtually no notice. They also were asked to think about the decisions they made and what they might have done better.
“Keep our own passports and not put them all into one plastic bag and give them to one person,” a participant said.
Bon reminded the participants that the refugees are surrounded by loss and trauma. “The thought of living in a camp for 15 years can be crushing,” she said, noting some children will spend their entire childhoods in a camp.
She asked them to reflect on what was the most difficult part of the journey, noting they may never see some family members again and that some loved ones were lost on the way. “How do you feel about the loss of control in your life? You have to let go. You are no longer in charge,” she added.
Bon also asked how they felt at the end of their journey.
Although some said they were grateful they had somewhere to stay, it was not a real home. Bon reminded them they had no roots in the new land and that they were not able to move about freely. However, agencies like the UN would provide food, medical care, some housing, education and other essentials.
Bon, who previously worked in refugee resettlement, said refugees can be ingenious and often find ways to barter for what they need. She shared stories of some refugees who were separated from their families and desperately were trying to be reunited.
She said the simulation is one way to help people understand the plight of refugees and to be more willing to assist them with their needs, including employment, housing, social services, etc.
“We care about our neighbor and our neighbor is everyone,” she added.
Kathy Collins, chairperson of the St. Luke Social Action Ministry, shared some ways to help refugees, pointing out affordable housing that is easily accessible by public transportation is a key need, as well as employment. They said the refugees are vetted by Homeland Security.
One concrete way to help is to form a circle of people who make a two-year commitment to help or offer cash to support a family.
Other suggestions are taking good, clean clothing and household items to Joseph’s House of Cleveland or supporting the Refugee Resource Center at St. Colman Parish in Cleveland. Although refugees receive food stamps, Bon reminded the group that food stamps can’t be used for other necessities like diapers, cleaning and paper products, which are available at the resource center. Volunteers are needed and donations are welcome.
Members of the St. Luke Social Action Ministry who helped organize the program included Collins, Olamide Opadokun, Becca Baas, Nora Eller, Max Hall, Jessica Trouten and Sister Joan Gallagher, CSA.