The decision to become of refugee isn’t one to be taken lightly, but travel light you will.
That was the lesson Khalil “Haji” Dokhanchi, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and his international politics students shared with the community Tuesday, Nov. 5, during “Refugee for 50 Minutes: From Syria to Germany.”
The interactive exhibit gave people a chance to see the perils that could befall refugees as they make their way from their homes to foreign lands, in search of safety.
There are about 75 million displaced people in the world, of which about 25 million are refugees, Dokhanchi said.
“That idea is unsettling because that’s too many people,” Dokhanchi said. “The reality is not everyone needs to be settled so of that 25 million, only 1.5 million need settlement. These are the people who are considered most vulnerable, so for example, torture survivors, people with serious disabilities or medical conditions, unaccompanied children and minors, people persecuted for their sexuality or gender as well as women at risk … it’s really not that many … almost 85% of all refugees are in neighboring countries.”
For example, he said, Afghanistan has about 2.7 million refugees but 1.5 million are in Pakistan and 1 million are in Iraq, and Syrian refugees include 3.5 million in Turkey, 1 million in each Lebanon and Jordan, and 800,000 in Iraq. Canada has taken in about 61,000 Syrian refugees, while only 16,000 have been taken in by the United States, he said.
During the simulation, participants were advised they could choose seven items among 30 necessities to take with them.
“It’s a matter of survival,” Dokhanchi told the first group as they entered the path a refugee would take. “Take what you need; you have to leave. When the war comes in, they’re not going to give you two-week notice so you can pack your stuff.”
With a roll of the dice, it was determined the group couldn’t stay in their homes.
“People don’t just leave for the heck of it,” Dokhanchi said. “In other words, you don’t just get up in the morning and go to the United States. They need a reason.”
Wading through a minefield — made of plastic bubbles hidden beneath a tarp — the group navigated the terrain with several loud pops going off.
Kevin Thomas, a senior at Hermantown High School, said he never thought that refugees might have to travel through minefields.
“That really wouldn’t be safe if you’re traveling with children,” Thomas said.
“Wars are not nice things,” Dokhanchi said. “If you step on a landmine, that’s the end of it.”
Those who made it through the minefield were still in Syria, classified as internally displaced, in a safer place within their own country.
“Technically, you’re not a refugee yet,” Dokhanchi said.
The requires leaving one’s own country.
A roll of the dice determined the group had to move on to Turkey where the status changed from internally displaced to refugee.
“A refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, nationality, race, politics or social status,” Dokhanchi said.
Unlike migrants, who to choose to move to improve their lives or to find work, refugees are forced to leave because of persecution, war or violence.
Right now, in the U.S., they are kind of put together, but they are not the same thing, Dokhanchi said.
With a roll of the dice, the group’s fate is decided — smugglers stole all their money, and they had to stay in Turkey to earn more for the journey. Dokhanchi said it takes about 3,000 euros to transport one refugee to Europe.
Another roll of the dice leaves one refugee to swim to Greece, and they drown.
“Four thousand people die in the Mediterranean Sea every single year,” Dokhanchi said. “Even if you get on a boat, there’s no guarantee that you make it because sometimes they put hundreds of people on these boats and these boats capsize.”
With more rolls of the dice, the boat capsized during the simulation.
“The point of using the dice here is to show you how uncertain this process is,” Dokhanchi said. “There is no guarantee that you end up here.”
Finally, the group found its way to Greece but with nearly 1 in 4 unemployed in the country, it was time to move on, first to Macedonia, then Serbia, before getting to Hungary with better employment prospects, but anti-immigrant sentiment among the country’s leadership, then onto Germany where refugees must prove their status.
“I kind of had a general idea that they might leave for war,” said Iyzaya Gill, a junior majoring in business administration at UWS. However, he said he was surprised by the number of refugees and how many countries refugees must travel.
Samuel Stoughton, a senior at UWS whose public relations class helped promote the event, took on the challenge of keeping four balloons in the air at one time to represent the challenges immigrants face in their new land. Soon, only three, then two, then one remained in the air.
“I haven’t taken many courses on the history or geo-political sciences,” Stoughton said. “Haji told me just how interactive it is and how crazy it is, how many borders you have to go through … I was surprised by how many countries you have to go through, and the little help you get along the way.”