Simulating Life as a Refugee

March 29, 2017

by Abigail Hansen ’17 and Adam Benhamida ’17

Abigail Hansen:

Home: a safe, comfortable, familiar place–a place of origin. To most of us at SSM, home is something we often don’t give a second thought. Although many of us may be away from our families, we can be sure of returning home to them. We do not have to worry about our families’ safety, or if they will be there when we go back. Unfortunately to many around the world, these concerns are an everyday reality.

Forty Upper School students from SSM recently had the opportunity to partake in a Refugee Simulation, run by a 1.5-generation Cambodian refugee, Sam Ouk, Faribault Public Schools’ EL Coordinator and a member of Faribault Diversity Coalition. In the simulation, students were no longer themselves, but refugees in Cambodia. They reenacted what living in the concentration camps, fleeing to a camp, and resettling was like. Sam shared stories of the horrific genocide that his family endured in the late 1970’s in “The Killing Fields” of Cambodia. These concentration camps were run by the communist group Khmer Rouge. A group called “Ankga” was the leader of this movement, and their goal was to “cleanse” the country of anyone who stood out. This meant that anyone with the littlest difference, such as having soft hands, or having a lighter complexion than others, would be executed. The Khmer Rouge’s strong hatred towards foreigners and anyone from America lead them to sweep the country and capture everyone–men, women, children. They forced children ages 6-17 to become Khmer Rouge soldiers. These young people led the concentration camps with their own families as the prisoners. After the horrible events were stopped by the Vietnamese invasion, families were faced with a decision: would they stay in their villages and risk being captured once again by Vietnamese soldiers, or would they flee and begin the rough and dangerous journey of a refugee?

Sam’s family chose to leave their cherished home and seek a safe place to live. The challenges they, and all other refugee families, faced in America were almost as steep as those in the concentration camps. These families were further from home, they had little hope of seeing loved ones ever again, there was a language barrier between them and the people in their new country, they were often treated unfairly by Americans, and often, these families did not have the choice whether they wanted to come or not. In Sam’s case, once he and his family arrived in the US, his great-grandfather was forced to stay in California, while the rest of them had to go on to Minnesota. Even while they were in a safe country, they had great loss and heartache.

So many of the families around us have, or are facing, challenges like these. Faribault alone has 30 Cambodian refugee families. Minnesota has the largest population of Burmese refugees per state with 2,500. The Somali refugee count in MN is 25,000. Over 28,000 Hmong refugees live in Minnesota, ranking #1 in the US. We who have the privilege of living in our homes also have the responsibility to make these refugees’ transition to America as smooth as possible. Sam says, “one thing that can be done but often overlooked is just finding opportunities to befriend a refugee. Just like a new student who moves into a community, it’s often unsettling and lonely when we don’t know anyone. This feeling of sadness and discomfort is multiplied when you’re a refugee.” If you don’t know any refugees, Sam says that working through a teacher who has refugees in their class to set up a pen pal friendship is a great way to connect with them. How else could we help refugees?


Adam Benhamida:

I was able to take part in a simulation of what it would be like to work in the infamous work camps and be a refugee on the run. As a worker, my character’s father was a soldier for the capitalist army, I followed my father’s patriotism. I was taken into the camp and made a Khmer Rouge soldier. My job was to ration younger kids. I survived the original purges and as long as I follow the rules, I will live. Take me for a better example: I am white, I wear glasses, I’m on the heavier side of weight. Being white means I am a western, wearing glasses adds to their idea that glasses are an invention of the west, being my weight means I am lazy and will probably not work. If I was in Cambodia, I would be dead.

The second simulation paired you with other students and all you choose a member of a family acting as a refugee. I was the baby, my family consisted of a grandfather, father, sister, and mother. While choosing things to take with you, we chose an ox. Immediately, we were hit with a question. Would we kill for the ox? We all hesitated on what the question meant. And, as a result of our delayed response, our grandfather was killed and the ox was lost. It hit me how every answer leads to different consequences even if you don’t answer. Before we even begin the journey a family member was killed. This demoralized me. The danger was supposed to be on the road, but here we are at home. On the journey, the first major event was an attack. During the attack, our daughter was lost. Now we have a choice. Send someone to find her, or keep going. We chose to send our father with a gallon of water. He did find our daughter, but she had died. Now, my mother and me were left, with my father somewhere in the jungle. We had no idea if our daughter was alive or dead. But, we were family. And no one gets left behind. Later, our father would die from stepping on a landmine. His journey to find his daughter left him in ruins, and now this. I don’t know if you know what it’s like to step on a landmine. He was probably walking along, with his gallon of water, thinking about his dead daughter and his lost wife and baby. Would he ever see them again? Where were they? Were they even still alive? So many unanswered questions that can easily be answered with a phone call. But, there are no, BANG, he is dead. My mother and I would make it to the border only to find the Khmer Rouge waiting to take soldiers to fight the Vietnamese on the other side. With my father gone they would not let us pass. Then, the other family’s boy refused to go with the Khmer Rouge. The result, their whole family was gunned down, giving me and my mother the chance to make it out alive.

Now that we are free and in a camp does not mean we are safe. A woman alone with no protection is vulnerable to horrible things. And let’s say we make it out of the camp and make it to France or America. Will my mother get a job? Who will look after me? Living as a refugee after being taken to a new country is not the beginning, but it still continues the nightmare that is the life of a refugee.

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