the refugee project

July 19, 2013

from left to right, Harima, Zarmina, and Mopikar Ahmed--Melissa, Hannah, and me

Blinkingly, I stared through the blue haze that was the lace grille covering my eyes. For me, the image of women swathed in blue burqas had always been limited to National Geographic covers, and now I was living that image from the other side of the veil, stumbling my way through Seattle's International District in the guise of a teenage refugee named Mopikar. My adopted family consisted of Zarmina, mother Harima, and brother Farid. Our object? To get to the "US State Department," "UN Feeding Center," and refugee camp medical clinic (all set up at various points in a two-block radius in Chinatown).

We donned the burqas and long skirts to fit into our roles as refugees in The Refugee Project simulation, an educational experience presented by the non-profit organization World Relief. I'd expected that, like most simulations, it'd be something basic--sitting in a room, getting a slip of paper with a name and a generic story. I never expected to find myself becoming invested in my character. I never expected to find myself standing on a street corner squinting through a veil, shrinking a little as strangers stared or stopped to take pictures. Just like me, most average Seattleites probably never expected to see women in burqas outside of magazine pages and TV clips.

"I feel judged," whispered Hannah, as our "mom" urged us to stay close and watch out for strange men. In truth, Hannah wasn't even breaking character--one thing we learned quickly, huddled close, was that you can be made to feel like an outsider with something as simple as a long glance, a pointed finger. I grew to dread the passing stranger in a way I never had in shorts and a t-shirt.

At the various stops, things got no better. The volunteer actors who played the parts of various officials, like a feeding station agent and camp doctor, were impatient and brusque, making comments like "ridiculous costumes," "you're Muslim? Might've guessed," "want to trade that ring for some extra food?" and "up against the wall--I said no questions" even as we struggled to find our way. Seattle streets I've walked day in and day out visiting my grandparents in the International District suddenly felt foreign to me as I stumbled around them, sweating, confused, and always feeling watched.

I learned a lot of stats today, like the fact that only half of one percent of refugees internationally ever get the chance to resettle in a safe foreign country (stories like those of the Lost Boys of Sudan, allowed to come to the United States), often because of countless bureaucratic roadblocks. The United States doesn't accept as many refugees as the capacity of our quota would allow, a shame for all those who linger in overcrowded refugee camps around the world. Even in the 21st Century we've come to a shamefully imperfect realization of Emma Lazarus's "New Colossus" stanza:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
For those who do make it here, the road doesn't get easy simply because of passing through that "golden door." Eric Schesche, a teenager who was born in a refugee camp in Benin to parents fleeing war in Togo, told his story of coming here when he was 13. After experiencing the struggles of a refugee camp where he had to hunt wild animals, steal fruit, and defend himself against bigger, stronger people competing for the same resources, he was thrown into a different kind of life tempest--junior high in America, barely speaking English. With the help of World Relief volunteers he made it through high school and to a vocational program where he studies today, but it's easy to see how his path could've been different. Hannah and I had the chance to talk to Eric, even using some of our really bad French.

"Qu'est-ce tu as mange pour petit dejeuner?" I asked, and he told us about fufu, the cornmeal dish he ate all the time back home and often eats now here. It was a reminder of comforting normalcy in a remarkable life. Indeed, seeing him with his low-slung pants and backwards baseball cap, and hearing about his favorite meals, sports teams, and surprising affinity for the show Teen Wolf, you might assume that Eric's story is like any other American teenager's. But there are many refugees like Eric, of many ages and nationalities, all around the Seattle area (and elsewhere in the US); they aren't wearing cardboard signs saying "I'M A REFUGEE," but their unique struggles deserve recognition and support from our communities.

Oftentimes, it's easy to dehumanize large groups of disenfranchised people, whether minorities in our own nation or refugees internationally. We see those wrenching photographs or donate a couple dollars or think, "That's too bad," when we hear about mass persecution and refugee camps, but it's worth remembering the personal things: these are people with complex stories, faces behind burqas. There are boys like Eric, whose face lit up with a smile in recollecting one good thing about the refugee camp in Benin--playing soccer with salvaged plastic bags tied together when a ball couldn't be found. As much as there's hopelessness or misery there can be moments of joy and gratefulness. I know that an afternoon's simulation could never truly make me walk in the shoes of a refugee, but I like to think I had a brief taste of those feelings, at least in one moment as Mopikar Ahmed. It came, standing on that street corner, and seeing a laughing group of small children walk toward us. Oh no, I thought as a little girl pointed at us. I turned away, not wanting to see their reactions or hear their commentary.

Hannah tapped me on the shoulder.

"Did you hear what they said?" she asked excitedly. "They said, 'Look at the princesses!' "

No one could see it, but underneath the blue, I smiled.

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