By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
GATLINBURG — According to recent data released by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, there are 65.6 million displaced individuals, or refugees, in the world today. It is the highest number in recorded history and is growing by hundreds of thousands each year.
Sadly, when hearing numbers like that, there is a tendency to forget that there are faces behind the figures. It almost becomes lost that these are real people, with real emotions and real families. And many of them are hurting.
In hopes of shining a light on these dark developments, national WMU has worked with several other organizations to create the “Refugee Simulation Experience” — an interactive, walk-through exhibit that enables participants to better grasp the hardships that many refugees are facing.
The exhibit was open at this year’s WMU Missions Get-Together and Connection event in Gatlinburg, and many of the attendees were moved to tears by what they saw and felt. The exhibit, which is intentionally intense, shows the bleak and desperate circumstances that many refugees encounter every day, including their meager living quarters and their constant fears regarding nourishment, medical treatment and education.
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“After experiencing the refugee simulation, our prayer is that participants will have a greater understanding of the extent of the refugee crisis in the world and cultivate greater empathy for refugees,” said Kristy Carr, ministry consultant at national WMU. “Also, our prayer is that they will have a greater understanding of what the Bible says regarding a Christian’s response to helping others such as refugees.”
WMU, which has designated Refugee ministries as its Project Help emphasis for 2018-2020, is encouraging churches across Tennessee to create their own “Refugee Simulation Experience.” Instructions, videos, and ideas on how to produce the exhibit are available at WMU.com under the “focus on missions” link. The resources are available for free through June.
Carr said the goal of the exhibit is three-fold: “(We hope the participants will) develop a greater understanding about the issues refugees face, learn what the Bible teaches about our response to refugees, and explore how we go from knowledge about refugees to engaging with refugees for the cause of Christ,” she said.
The “Refugee Simulation Experience” demonstrates how refugees are often treated like prisoners. Those who enter the “Experience” are immediately given a number to wear, told that they are essentially losing their identities, and told to put all of their personal belongings into a trash bag.
The group of participants is then divided into two groups. One group is led to a small “classroom” in which a teacher rapidly blasts through a language lesson. (Many refugees are forced to learn a new language). The other group is taken to a “health clinic” to be inspected for lice and other such maladies.
As the tour continues, participants are ordered to proceed quickly from one station to the next, and some are then taken to “detention centers.”
The tour is quick, but impactful, and often leads to emotional responses, just as it did for Allie Higashi.
“I was intending to observe the activity to see how we could recreate the simulation (at my home church) to bring awareness to social justice issues,” said Higashi, who participated in the Experience at a recent LifeWay women’s forum. “What happened instead broke me down to tears and opened my heart to a huge group of displaced people that used to barely cross my lips in prayer.”
Higashi said it was “disorienting” to be put in situations where she didn’t understand the language, and said she felt a new level of empathy for refugees.
“The sadness of possibly never returning to your home and being treated less than kindly by your new host home in detention centers and refugee camps came to new life for me in this simulation,” she said. “And yet, I realize it is nothing compared to the real life of refugees.”
The Refugee Simulation Experience will be set up at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. WMU will be working with IMB, BGR, NAMB, and SEND Relief to host the exhibit.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to provide this experience for those attending the SBC this year,” Carr said.