Saturday, January 22, 2022

Walking on a refugee’s shoes

On Thursday last week, media practitioners walked in the shoes of a refugee for the very first time, as they were asked to play the role of a refugee at a workshop hosted by the United Nations. From the point where they flee their native country, through the refugee status determination interviews, to the time when they are granted refugee status, these poor souls are made to go through a very harrowing experience.

Blind folded, journalists were made to listen to the facilitator, Tina Ghelli, as she read out statements depicting scenarios of violence in a war ridden country. They had to imagine the sound of fighter jets piercing through the sky and coming towards their homestead. A few moments later there are explosions everywhere as the jets drop bombs on innocent civilians. Dark clouds of smoke rise up and envelope them, stinging their eyes and choking them as they wander around aimlessly, not knowing where their children or family members are. There are cries everywhere, cries of child and parent alike, all injured, confused and scared out of their wits.

Everyone is calling out for help as they search for their loved ones, groping the dust covered air and staggering around in panicked confusion. As they start regaining their wits, some of them stumble upon their loved ones, only to realize that some are still nowhere to be found. Then they go on to try and salvage some household items from the rubble that was once their home. Next is the tedious trip to safety. During the relocation process, the fit are forced to carry the injured as they trudge along to safety.

“Now you have travelled this far, you have to find a temporary shelter which can accommodate the whole family,” the facilitator’s voice instructs. A small shelter appears…

Along the way, the injured and their family members have to part with some precious items in order to create space. Each member’s accommodation costs an item. They settle down to a rest in the temporary shelter, with no refreshing meals, no water and no blankets regardless of weather conditions. They rest, with very little knowledge of where they are going. No one bothers to inform them of their next course of action, which direction to take here after, or whether there will be any humanitarian aid coming their way. The long devastating journey starts and once again they have to collect their valuables and carry their injured loved ones to safety.

“You do not have travelling documents. The border officials do not speak your language. Without travelling documents you have to fill forms, written in a language you do not know,” comes another instruction…

And so begins the weary process of trying to understand and respond to questions asked in a strange language. After lengthy processing of documents and persuasive intervention by officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the asylum seekers are finally granted refugee status and accommodated in a refugee camp.

“Take this list. Fill these forms and indicate how much supplies you will get,” a UNHCR official announces…

While they are getting assisted, another announcement comes, “We did not expect so many refugees. We have run out of supplies. Reduce your requisition.”

Ultimately the refugees have to share small tents and settle for smaller rations of food and water. What an experience it was. The message though, to both journalists and you the reader, is that you could be a refugee. Refugees are human beings too and they don’t enjoy being holed up in camps in strange lands, depending on humanitarian handouts for survival. They also deserve decent, humane treatment.

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