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Through refugee simulation, youth at SBC meeting grow in compassion

Harper, back left, and Carissa next to her were taken through an exercise teaching them what it feels like to be a refugee. Photo by Abby Duren

NASHVILLE (BP) – Among the new words students attending the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting learned were “Dermici” for listen, “yoma” for clock, “Lamichca” for calendar and “itumba” for computer.

At the Youth on Mission morning session June 16, students actively participated in a refugee loss simulation, which opened their eyes to struggles many refugees experience and showed them ways to love their neighbor well.

Heather Norvell, executive director of Begin Anew in Middle Tennessee, shows a poster displaying one of the refugees her organization helped to overcome poverty and receive an education. Photo by Abby Duren

This first portion of the simulation demonstrated to students what it was like for a refugee to enter a new country and learn a new language without using their language of origin as a base teaching tool.

Begin Anew, a Middle Tennessee organization that addresses economic, social and spiritual poverty, led the refugee immersion experience. In the last year, Begin Anew served people from 33 different countries of origin through English language classes, high school equivalency assistance and weekly Bible studies.

“We want to go to the nations, but what we don’t realize is that the nations are coming to us,” said Heather Norvell, Begin Anew executive director.

Norvell works closely with refugees and used this knowledge to teach students attending the simulation about the difficult decisions and losses that refugees around the world face every day.

To give all students equal footing, the new “language” they learned was fake and created by the Begin Anew staff. Leaders taught the students new words without speaking any English. Leaders Andrea Waters and Angela Good taught the new language and encouraged students to listen not only with their ears but also with their eyes, hearts and minds.

Following each experience throughout the morning, the students were asked to discuss with others at their table how the previous activity made them feel. Some shared that during the language learning experience, they felt overwhelmed or not very smart.

Leaders commended the students for their honesty and explained that is how many refugees feel coming to a country where they do not speak the native language. They may be treated as slow or stupid, while in reality, many have advanced degrees in their country of origin. But their qualifications mean nothing in their new country. Begin Anew helps them earn high school equivalency, so they can start over with new degrees.

The next three portions to the refugee loss simulation utilized 16 colored index cards – four yellow, four orange, four green and four pink. Without explaining what the cards would be used for, Norvell asked the students to write four activities they enjoy on the yellow cards, the four most important people in their life on the orange cards, the four things they are most thankful for on the green cards and four roles they currently play in their community on the pink cards.

After writing down each answer on its own card, students were ready for the second step. Norvell announced that everyone had just 30 seconds to look at all their cards and remove one from each color category.

Students’ cries of dismay could be heard around the room.

The countdown began and students frantically looked through their cards and placed the selected ones in the middle of the table. Leaders walked around the room with trash cans, telling students to tear up and dispose of their cards.

When Norvell called time, she explained that refugees have to make split-second decisions of what to take when they run from their war-torn countries. She gave a scenario of a mother fleeing who must decide if she saves only the child in her arms, or if she will risk running to the school to save the other child knowing it is unlikely for her to make it back alive.

Student responses ranged from terror at the thought of such a choice to the realization that in such a reality, guilt would follow them the rest of their lives.

For the third challenge, students were instructed to turn their cards upside down and shuffle them. Without knowing where any specific card was, they then selected one card at random from each color and placed them in the center of the table.

After tearing up and throwing away this set of cards, leaders explained that once refugees leave their home country, they will experience many unknown losses. They may never know if their home was destroyed or if their mother or brother survived.

Some students began bargaining for one card over another as they were told to place them in the trash can. Others grew confused and concerned as they realized the card they had unknowingly selected said “Jesus,” “Life” or “the Bible.”

Though they rightfully argued that Jesus can never be taken away, Norvell explained how in a new country they may not be surrounded by people who believe the same things as they do. Without a church family or with many other faiths trying to influence their own, she said they would likely feel separated from God and find it more difficult to practice their faith.

In the final segment, leaders walked around tables and took cards in varying numbers from students. The announcement of how they would lose cards was received with gasps and surprised shouts of “No!” Several pleaded to keep their cards while others bargained to give up their less important cards.

Some students lost nothing, many lost a few cards, a small group lost everything and some were tricked into thinking they would keep everything just before all of their cards were taken. In this final stage it was clear how well the students understood the simulation. They thought deeply about how these losses would feel in real life.

Through feelings of guilt, discouragement, devastation and powerlessness, the group felt an overwhelming compassion for those who have lost everything. They wanted to share the few remaining things in their life with those who had nothing, which was the Begin Anew team’s goal for the simulation.

The team encouraged the students to continue seeking to understand the losses and struggles of others as they follow the Great Commandment and love their neighbors as themselves.

    About the Author

  • Kirbi Cochran