Violet Schnizlein, 8, knows how it feels to be separated from the place you love. This year, she said, her family moved nine blocks away from the place she had grown up and where two of her closest friends, who she’s known since she was a year old, still live. 

That experience, while sad, is nothing compared to the shock of becoming a refugee, Schnizlein said. 

The Whittier Elementary School student was among dozens of third- through fifth-graders who completed a refugee simulation at the school last Friday. 

“Since Monday is Martin Luther King Day, we’re trying to talk to them about becoming a good neighbor and one way of doing that is by welcoming new people into the country,” said Shana Wills, a parent who helped plan the experience. 

Last May, Wills and other parents from Whittier and Brooks Middle School, accompanied a small group of students to Chicago to help furnish an apartment that had been prepared for some refugees by the nonprofit Exodus World Service, which mobilizes volunteers to provide services for people who have been forced by conflict or catastrophe from their homes. 

“Because most of our collection efforts last year went through adults, we wanted to bring the students more into the refugee experience this year,” said Whittier Principal Keisha Warner. 

Stephanie Thomas, who was among the parents and students who made the welcoming trip to Chicago last year, said that more than meeting the refugees at the last point of their journey, she wanted the students to “internalize what these refugees go through. Exodus was our partner in setting up the houses last year, so naturally, we relied on them for this as well.” 

Michael Cruz, 9, was told by Exodus instructors to imagine himself at sea, confined to a raft with six other people. The Whittier’s wooden auditorium stage was beneath him, but he could imagine the water’s expanse, he said.

“The worst part of the experience, I think, would be the ocean, because if people are seasick, they’d be coughing and vomiting all over the place,” Cruz said after going through the simulation. “Waves would be coming in and splashing everybody, you’d really have nothing and you’d be in a cramped space for years.” 

The students confronted the relative absence of mobility and choice, perhaps the hallmarks of the refugee experience, at five stations dispersed throughout the building. 

At the first station, students sat on the floor in a hallway, deciding on which six items they would bring with them on their escape from home. They then fled to the second station, the crowded life boats, before metaphorically floating to the pitched tents at the bottom of the auditorium stage that represented the refugee camp.

In the camps, the students were forced to sit in silence for a few minutes in order to simulate how it feels to be herded into a crowded encampment where few people may speak your language. 

“You might be separated from your family for a few years and you might have to eat, like, one meal a day,” said Schnizlein. “A food truck only comes once a week.”

After the camps, where, according to Thomas, most refugees spend at least three years, the students walked silently over to the border-crossing station located in the back of the auditorium.

“The border patrol may likely request that the refugees give them something in order to get through,” Thomas said, whittling down what remains of their six possessions, some of which may have been lost at sea, to barely anything at all. 

By the time most students got to America, the fifth and last station, they were drained. 

Sue Horgan, Exodus World Service’s education coordinator, said that the refugee simulations are the informational aspect of her organization’s mission. 

“It’s one thing to see 20 people on a passenger boat on television, but it’s something else to actually sit in the boat,” she said.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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