Humiliation and degradation were lined up for pupils in a simulation exercise, reports Nathan Greenfield
Masked men firing guns stormed the gym at Sisler high school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, recently. Fortunately Laura Marrast and Daniel Rea, both 17, knew the invasion was the start of a 16-hour refugee simulation exercise, but they were still taken by surprise.
At the time their team leaders were giving them their "passports" for the exercise, which explained who they were and whether they came from Sudan, Indonesia, BosniaHerzegovina, Columbia or Liberia.
"Suddenly we heard a gunshot and these men with hoods over their eyes came into the gym and made us lie down," said Daniel, who explained that from then on it was extremely easy to stay in role.
"I'm not a small guy, and to make things look real they pushed guys like me around."
Social science teacher Ken Corley started the In Exile For a While programme last year, designed to give students hands-on experience of being a refugee.
"I was looking for a way to involve students in understanding not just the facts about refugees but also the human experience. So, with the support of my school and organisations like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, we developed this programme in which students take on the identity of a refugee and spend a day being treated as one."
Sixty-five students from 11 schools in the Winnipeg area took part in the exercise.
Laura and Daniel's treatment got worse once their bus reached Birds Hill Park where they encountered landmines, attacks by rebels, booby-trapped food parcels, injured "refugees" and still more rebel attacks, before reaching the relative safety of a United Nations camp.
"My group was the last to head out," says Laura. "For more than two hours we were held at gunpoint while being made to do jumping jacks, and stand on one foot and kneel with our hands in the dirt. It was hot and we were not given any water."
According to Daniel, the hardest part of the ordeal was seeing landmine victims with prosthetic limbs blown apart.
"At one point we were attacked by rebels who took our water and the food we had managed to smuggle out of the first attack. They degraded us and called us names. They forced us to choose a girl to leave with them.
"We knew what would happen to her when we left. Later we heard a scream and then a shot."
Arriving at the UN camp in the late afternoon did not mean safety. Not only were the students given forms they barely understood, but the guards were abusive. While checking the refugees' health, they asked: "What can you bring to this country?"
"They did a great job of intimidating us. You felt that you would get shot and die," says Daniel.
"The UN guards enjoyed humiliating us," says Laura. "Some of us had lost our bowl and spoon so they put us in the 'loser line' and made us wait.
When the rebels came in again and stole our food the guards, who had gone away for a meeting, ridiculed us for being so stupid that we couldn't even protect our food."
In Exile For a While ended with students returning to their groups, where they met a real refugee who had come to Canada to discuss their experiences.
"This last part is extremely important," says Ester Klimitz, who co-ordinated this year's programme. "It allows the students to link their feelings and experiences with those of a genuine refugee who has had to learn to adjust to life in Canada."
The In Exile For a While day is part of a 10 module Refugees Exiles: A Canadian Perspective curriculum developed for the Manitoba department of education. Information on the programme can be found at 'Refugees and Exiles' at www.sislerhigh.org