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Can a Refugee Simulation Camp Help People Empathize with the Victims of War?

In rural Ohio, a "refugee simulation weekend" forces people to take on the role of a refugee, experiencing food rations, lack of shelter, and the occasional appearance of bandits.

Refugee Weekend. All photos courtesy of Dr. Jeff Cook

During one of my more memorable weekends in college, I fled a group of bandits trying to steal my belongings, plucked a scrawny chicken, watched a sheep get slaughtered so we could eat, and narrowly avoided frostbite after spending all day and night outside. In Ohio. In the middle of winter. The experience was called Refugee Weekend, an overnight class exercise meant to show our group of Midwestern, middle-class millennials just what it meant to exist on the margins. It was so cold that I melted the sole of my Army-issue borrowed boot as I tried to get warm at a campfire. Then a group of masked bandits raided camp, again, and I hobbled on an unevenly melted boot for the rest of the night. The hellish experience began on Friday afternoon, and ended in the early hours of Sunday morning—if only real-world refugees had that luxury.

The simulation is the brainchild of Dr. Jeff Cook (or "Papa C," as he's affectionately known), an Army vet and professor of urban ministry who wanted his students to empathize with those who lived on the margins of society. Refugee Weekend (and a similar-style program, called Poverty Immersion) were both born from Cook's unusual style of teaching, which eschewed traditional textbook study for hands-on learning.

Years after retiring from Cedarville University in Ohio, where I first met him, Cook is now the Academic Director of an urban leadership center. He still runs the Refugee Weekend, which is increasingly relevant given Europe's refugee crisis. I called him to chat about his perspective on refugees and why even his small-scale simulation experience can be important for Western students.

VICE: Can you explain what Refugee Weekend is?
Dr. Jeff Cook: Refugee Weekend is an immersion experience modeled on different refugee situations from around the world. The idea is to experience what it means to be in a parallel world with a different socioeconomic status. It's a two-day, two-night simulation, and it was part of my Global Missions class at Cedarville University for about 13 years.

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How much of the simulation is based on real-world refugee scenarios?
Lots of the content has to do with learning about people on the margins and persecution around the world. There are, what, 50 million refugees around the world at any given time? I needed an experience to bring all that together. During my seven years in the army, I spent plenty time in the woods with guns. I drew on life experience and developing my knowledge of marginalized people, impoverished people. What if I could think through how to develop a three-day experience with refugees?

I started brainstorming the value of experiential learning and pushing people mentally and physically, like in the army. I could take people and run them across country while chasing them with rebels, smugglers, human smugglers, camps, applying for asylum... Did we have the asylum option the year you were involved?

No, we didn't. Does the simulation change a lot from year to year?
Every year has evolved, but the premise is the same. Some of the girls are assigned headscarves or pregnant bellies. Everyone is bussed out and dropped off in the middle of nowhere for two days and two nights, where they encounter masked rebels with weaponry, march through long, cold nights, and sometimes even see animals butchered or their families forcibly taken from them.

I remember waking up stiff and cold one of the mornings to the blasting sound of the Muslim Call to Prayer. You incorporate a lot of different cultures and settings into the mix.
It's getting you to a place where you're uncomfortable, where everything you do is a bigger deal. Refugee Weekend brings together lots of streams of knowledge and experience.

Watch: VICE News investigates Berlin's refugee crisis

How did this idea originate?
I'm wired for hands on, engaging, experiential [learning], so going to a university where everything tended to be so dry and data-oriented was a struggle. I was teaching urban ministry and meanwhile, a buddy in Waco, Texas was running a poverty immersion experience. I took that and put it on steroids.

I developed Poverty Immersion Weekend the first year I was at Cedarville, around 2000. Students spend three days homeless on the streets. Cedarville University's majority student demographic is white upper-middle class; lots of students have no exposure to diversity or anything to do with poverty. I wanted them to experience that end of the continuum, not just talk about it in a classroom.

How did that experience translate to Refugee Weekend?
After I'd been running poverty immersion for a couple of years, I needed something for my Global Missions class. One night, I was looking through a book of youth ministry skits for teen youth groups—you know, a church basement type of thing—and there was one in there about refugees. I think the book was trying to familiarize youth with social consciousness toward refuges. And that was the spark.

The first year, I think it was me and a couple guys and we spent maybe an hour and a half brainstorming and planning at a pizza shop in Cedarville. I think a lot of it came together in the final hours, honestly. I didn't really know what I was doing, but we had an idea based on what we knew about refugee situations.

"If I don't understand what it feels like to be hunted by rebels and fear being raped, I can't care about marginalized people who live their lives in those fears." — Jeff Cook

How long have you been running Refugee Weekend?
About 15 years now. Since I moved to Colorado I've been going back to Ohio to run them, but I'm actually getting ready to run the first Refugee Weekend in Denver. I've got 12 people flying in from around the country at their own expense to be the rebel army—all former students. It's going to be interesting to see how they do in the mountains.

Where do you get the land to run your weekend?
In Ohio we started out running in a five-acre farm where I knew the owners. There's a bike path and I knew that is how we'd be able to travel cross-country. The last couple years in Ohio we've utilized a 400-acre farm that I have access to, with woods. It's too much trouble now to deal with public land and the Sherriff's department. Here in Denver, there's a camp in the mountains backs up to Rocky Mountain National Forest.

Have you been criticized for simulating global atrocities or creating "luxury tourism" out of the experience?
Very rarely has there been negative feedback, and only then from people who haven't actually gone through the experience. They have no frame of reference: They're criticizing an imitation caricature. Come along for the weekend! Refugee Weekend is a parallel universe to help foster an understanding of needs and how to connect and relate to people. If I don't understand what it feels like to be hunted by rebels and fear being raped, I can't care about marginalized people who live their lives in those fears.

Of all the Refugee Weekends you've run, is there any one in particular that stands out for any reason?
One of the weekends, the weather was so awful we brought everyone back to campus early, like 3 AM. I really thought it was dangerous. People were freezing and there was nowhere to keep warm. I got kind of scared, like some of them might be getting hypothermia, thinking, I better get these folks back to campus or I'm gonna get in real trouble. The funny thing was, as we brought them back to campus people thought it was a trick—that we were going to ship them off for more torture. But we weren't. We let them go.

Oh. That was my weekend.
No way.

I'm pretty sure I was the most hysterical of them all. How many people have you put through Refugee Weekend?
At least 1,000.

Do you think Refugee Weekend needs to be extreme to get its message across?
Nothing imprints on our DNA like experimental learning. Being a refugee ties together a lot of things: persecution, poverty, the opportunity for holistic ministry. [Church ministry] often focuses on a spiritual aspect that doesn't deal with the physical and social issues. But I always look at it this way: A bird has two wings and needs both of them. You can't experience the spiritual side of life when you're hungry, fighting for your life, no one loves you, that kind of stuff. You can't solve a problem you don't understand, and you can't understand from a distance. You don't understand what it means to be on the margins until you're on the move all night, hounded by rebels, tired and hungry. Sometimes during the weekend, "Christians" will show up and distribute Bibles to the refugees. But, I'm sorry, I'm hungry, my kids are sick... and now you want to have Bible study?

Refugee Weekend is a testimony to experiential learning. I'm done with higher education—being morally culpable for putting people in thousands of dollars in debt for the rest of their lives. I am a fanatical fan of experiential learning and of getting people to understand that structural injustice is wrong on every level.

What has been the impact of Refugee Weekend?
One hand, there's the changed, deep awareness. I have boxes of papers that people have written about these weekends. My wife insists I keep them. They've inspired a profound cognizance that not all white middle class Christian university students get to experience. For some, it challenges them with a real sense of duty to marginal people and refugees in particular—it's stoked the fire. Some students have ended up giving their lives to work with refugees. God's got a heart for the poor and He's used this to imprint on their DNA that life is just plain harder for people on the margins. And that goes for anyone experience any type of injustice, not just refugees.

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