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World Relief offers a simulation of refugees’ experiences for workshops

By Yvonne Lopez-Morton

The road to freedom leading to World Relief and Spokane last year for Ram Khadka started at the age of eight when he and his family fled the violence in their native Bhutan to Nepal’s largest refugee camp near the Indian border.

World Relief

Ram Khadka and Catherine Hogan-Davies of WR

Today Ram shares his experiences of living in the harsh Belgandi-II camp in Jhapa for 18 years with participants of World Relief’s Refugee Simulation program.

Started in 2007, the program has hosted hundreds of students, church groups, educators and nonprofit organizations to help them experience and understand the challenges refugees face while waiting for entry to the United States.

“We take people out of their comfort zone during the simulation experience,” said the program’s coordinator Catherine Hogan-Davies, “and ask them for three hours to walk in the footsteps of a refugee and experience what they have experienced.”

Participants assume the role of actual refugee families who have been resettled in Spokane by World Relief.

Catherine, Ram and staff begin the journey for participants with an orientation about World Relief before they break into four ethnic groups, each representing a different family.

Each group is given a bag and asked to take out a binder with the story of the refugee family they are representing.

“They have 30 minutes to review the information and try to memorize as much of the family background as possible,” Catherine said.

After reviewing the history, participants transform into their new family roles by putting on authentic ethnic clothing. They agree to respect the clothing.

The four families then cycle through four simulation stations including a language acquisition class, a medical screening clinic, visit with immigration officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and a feeding station.

During the feeding station stop, students learn from Ram about the obstacles he and his family faced going to the camp, the reality of life in a refugee camp and the meager rations the family received twice a month from relief agencies based at his camp in eastern Nepal.

Ram and his family traveled for days to reach Nepal because of the conditions of the roads from the summer rainy season.  He was packed into a truck with members of 11 other households. It was a difficult, uncomfortable journey.  Along the way a family member gave birth, and the child died.

Once they arrived and were processed at the camp, Ram discovered that each day would require survival skills to adapt to the strict, challenging conditions and requirements of camp life with thousands of others.

 “I helped unload food every two weeks for my family.  Each day, each person was given 400 grams of rice, 20 grams of sugar, 7 grams of salt, 25 grams of cooking oil, 40 grams of lentils and 20 grams of garbanzos,” he said.

Ram said there were no fresh fruits, and vegetables were rare.  When they were available, they were often rotten. The only source of protein was the delivery of garbanzo beans and lentils every two weeks as part of their rations.

Beldangi-II is the largest of seven refugee camps in Nepal. Today more than 100,000 people live in the three camps at one time. Most of the supporting Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have their offices at Beldangi-II.

Home for Ram and other camp families consisted of two rooms with bamboo walls, plastic roofs and mud floors.

“There were eight of us living in our two small rooms,” he said, “We had no heat to keep us warm.  It was very cold.”

Ram also explained that while they did get blankets to help keep them warm at night, they were not the thick blankets destined for the camp, but replaced by officials in Nepal with thinner blankets.

Wire fences surrounded the camp and leaving the camp was prohibited. He and others risked discipline and their lives to leave the camp at night to gather firewood in the nearby forest. Women were especially vulnerable and were often assaulted outside the camp, he said.

At Ram’s and other stations in the simulation, participants are questioned and scored to earn a “ticket to freedom.”

“Of course, the actual process is much more intimidating than our simulation,” Catherine said. “It can take months and sometimes years for refugees to complete the process.

“Participants in our simulation events at World Relief have their eyes opened to a different vision of the world and how many challenges stand in the way of freedom,” she said.

The last simulation was held in early June for a group of Whitworth University students. Typical groups range from 24 to 26 people to ensure an effective personal experience, she explained.

Feedback from the students reflected what they felt and learned.

In her evaluation, one student wrote: “The discomfort we experienced is only a fraction of the true fear and confusion which refugees experience for a miniscule possibility of being accepted to the United States.”

The students’ comments also recognized that the plight of refugees does not end just when they come to America. 

They realize that Americans should be patient and accepting of refugees because they do not know of the refugees’ past experiences.

World Relief is the only evangelical agency authorized to resettle refugees in the United States and is the humanitarian, disaster relief, community/economic development and refugee/immigrant services arm of the National Association of Evangelicals with 23 other U.S. offices.

Catherine and other World Relief staff welcome new refugees, help them adjust to their new environment, find jobs, learn English and assist in acquiring citizenship.

Ram is one of more than 6,000 refugees that have been resettled in the Inland Northwest through World Relief.

With each refugee she meets, Catherine, who assumed her current role of refugee simulation coordinator and ESL (English as a Second Language) coordinator this past March, recognizes “the incredible barriers” they have faced to arrive at World Relief’s door.

She is passionate about helping each one remove remaining barriers and helping them begin their new journey in the United States.

Catherine’s commitment to resettling refugees comes from a long professional history of empowering people.

She met her husband when they were both teaching at a language school in Istanbul, Turkey.

They moved to Knoxville, Tenn., in 2001 and she worked for four years at a refugee assistance agency.

When they moved to Spokane in 2008, Catherine volunteered at World Relief and then became their ESL coordinator and director of their elder program. She also volunteered at the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant.

She left World Relief to work for a year and a half at Community Colleges of Spokane’s Institute for Extended Learning as an ESL teacher and then returned to World Relief in 2011.

The bridge is language and it is for this reason that teaching ESL and training volunteers to tutor ESL to refugees is my passion,” she said.

“This work is a calling and gives me the opportunity through my work to connect closely with people like Ram,” she said.

Catherine, who attends First Presbyterian in Spokane, said her commitment is based on the desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and help those less fortunate and less able to help themselves, regardless of race, religion or background.

Refugees are required to repay their transportation costs eventually to make if possible for other refugees to come to the United States she explained.

“Ram and others want to be successful here,” Catherine said.

Today Ram is employed, has married another refugee from Bhutan and they are expecting their first child.

He is also attending Spokane Falls Community College in pursuit of a degree to help him work in the computer technology field.

He also said that he finds comfort and support from members of the Faith Bible Church in the Spokane Valley.

“Compared to life in Bhutan and at the refugee camp, I feel I am living like a king,” Ram said.

For information, call 484-9829 or email hogan-davies@wr.org.