“The bodies of our friends have been hung up outside. The football field is drenched in red color, the blood of our friends. They will come, they will come!” the man repeats again and again, his voice shaking with fear, his hands gesturing insistently.
And then they come. With loud voices and guns in their hands, they run into the small room. “Get out! Get out of here!” The message is unmistakable; nevertheless, our group hardly moves at first. We are all totally overpowered by the sudden, ruthless appearance of these armed men.
Then I feel the cold steel of the gun barrel on my forehead, and I finally move. We are pushed outside the room. A woman tells me to get down, and I hear heavy shooting. Then, in a moment when the gunfire seems to have stopped for a second, she sends me off along a narrow floodway. I don’t know how much I can take anymore: I hear the shooting, I see an injured woman lying in a corner—but nothing else. Then I reach the others.
We’re a group of 15 to 20 people participating in Refugee Run, a simulation of life in refugee camps being put on for some of the world’s richest people at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There are many reporters among the group. One of them is a middle-aged reporter for ZDF, a German TV broadcaster. She went to the poverty camp at last year’s WEF and was deeply touched by the experience.
“Although I see a lot of poverty during my work, I found it was a very enriching experience that made me understand better why those people sometimes can’t act as we think it would be best to,” she says. “We sometimes tend to believe that we know what is best to do in their situation, neglecting the fact that we have no idea what issues they are really facing.”
This year the attention is strongly focused on Syria. For the world’s elite gathered in Davos, this peculiar project aims to create more empathy toward the refugees. It’s an uncomfortable concept: billionaires playing at refugees. Can the WEF participants really empathize with the suffering while also enjoying all the conveniences Davos has to offer?
Miserable “poverty porn” or voice for the voiceless?
While the self-described aim of the Crossroads Foundation is to advocate “education, empathy and empowerment,” there has been skeptical reaction to the Refugee Run. Forath Al-Hattab, a young woman representing Voices of Syria, says the simulation was “miserable” and insists that you cannot put someone into a refugee’s situation. Well-known economist William Easterly calls the Refugee Run an example of “poverty porn.”
Confronted with such negative statements, Malcolm Begbie, the Australian director of the Crossroads Foundation, replies, “Of course there will always be negative opinions about it. But these only come from people that are really cynical.”
Cynical or not, the question remains: Is this simulation really a disrespectful attempt to allow the rich and important to “feel” what 43.3 million refugees experience every day, to express their deep compassion and understanding, and then, as usual remain, inactive?
Smuggling, drugs, arms, chaos and despotism
It’s a question I don’t have time to immediately answer. Hiding behind my head scarf, I am holding on to my ID, given to me just before the beginning of the simulation. It feels as if the identity card is the only thing that can get me through all this safely. It wasn’t enough, though: The soldier looks at my ID, then looks suspiciously at me. He won’t let me into the camp. “What can you give me? Watch? Bracelet? Anything?” he asks.
This is how it usually works in the camps, as it is explained to me afterward. Theoretically, the camps are run by agencies, like the U.N.’s refugee agency, but in fact they are organized by soldiers or other armed men. Soldiers working in the camps earn very little money, hardly enough to survive on and support their families. That’s why the soldiers rape the refugees, taking the last of what they still own.
“No one would get anything, no food, no blankets, no medicine, without paying the soldier whatever we had on us, till we would have nothing left than the cloth on our bodies,” Raphael, a former refugee who acts in the simulation, tells us.
According to those manning the project, most of whom are former refugees, this simulation represents only about 15 percent run drug - and arms-smuggling networks through the camps a.
“I’ve even seen some camps where they give coffee to some young man—coffee which they previously put ecstasy in it to make these men addicted. Then they easily get them to join their circles of drug and arms smuggling,” David Begbie says.
He is the one who guides us through the simulation. He’s experienced himself the problems and hardships in refugee camps. For him, the gulf between life there and at the WEF in Davos is an essential part of the refugee condition. “Fact is that most of these refugees that are now living under the lowest bearable circumstances used to live a comfortable life before,” he says. “It gives us a hard time to imagine this. There are many high-qualified people among them, maybe doctors or professors or veterinarians.”
There is also a school at the simulated refugee camp. I am told to go there, and so I do. But the young woman trying to teach us is speaking in a foreign language, and none of us has the slightest clue what she is trying to tell us. Soon the class is over, disturbed, once again, by the shouting voices of the soldiers. Nobody knows what they want from us and why they are hassling us nonstop.
Alexandra Chen, the woman who plays the camp’s teacher, works for the aid agency Mercy Corps in Jordan. “I met young adults that have been going to school before, and they had plans on what they want to do with their lives. They had bright futures and lots of possibilities,” she says.
During the Refugee Run, it was always in the back of my mind that this was only a simulation. Although I heard that some people were moved to tears, I wasn’t. Nevertheless, I appreciated the experience, and I can’t deny that I didn’t feel uncomfortable, constantly trying to avoid any eye contact with the soldiers by staring at the ground and hiding behind my head scarf.
In the end, it wasn’t the simulation that struck me the most but the discussion afterward. It wasn’t just the facts; we all knew already that millions of people are suffering at this very moment. It was, instead, the words of sincere affection and the true stories of human beings and friends.
I was hardly able to ask David, one of the former refugees and a child soldier in Uganda, what it meant to him when playing in these scenarios. It must be like a needle that ceaselessly stabs you in your heart again and again. While others still have to bear those circumstances, he can justify his being here only by believing that the Run can have an impact on those attending, which in turn can have a positive impact on those he left behind.
He also believes it is his duty to give his people the voice they don’t have now, to remind those at Davos that “when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
It can feel presumptuous to try to put ourselves into the situation of a refugee, a displaced and homeless person, when we have a comfortable home to go back to at the end of the Refugee Run. On the other hand, if this simulation actually has a lasting impact on some of the participants, as the Run’s team argues, it might be a justifiable and effective undertaking. I prefer to hope that the experience somehow reaches and touches the right people, those who can launch efforts that may improve the situations of those who really need it. And I hope that the Refugee Run can give a voice back to those who don’t have one at the moment.
Nora Amman was a media trainee for Student Reporter as part of a partnership with Schweizerische Alpine Mittelschule.