29 August 2023

Lessons in empathy: Bulli High School students host Illawarra Refugee Challenge

| Dione David
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Bulli High School students sit in a tent marked Detention for the Illawarra Refugee Challenge

Students undertook a guided simulated experience of life as a refugee across six key areas: medical needs, the journey itself, shelter, education, detention and food, water and toilets. Photo: MCCI.

An annual collaboration between Wollongong City Council and the Multicultural Communities Council of Illawarra (MCCI) has taken local Bulli High School through an exercise in empathy and insight into the journey of refugees.

Over several weeks the school’s Year 9 international studies students underwent a number of sessions and workshops to learn about the experiences of refugees, in order to become the facilitators of the Illawarra Refugee Challenge.

On 21 August the students set up the school hall with a guided simulated experience of life as a refugee across six key areas: medical needs, the journey itself, shelter, education, detention and food, water and toilets.

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Makeshift tents were manned by the student facilitators who worked to convey the experiences they had learned about, some of which were based on lived experiences shared by former refugees, like Zinah Hasan.

The former Iraqi refugee turned Wollongong resident presented students with hypothetical scenarios and solutions to choose from, to illustrate the daily conundrums refugees faced.

“The point of the exercise was to give them an idea of the storyline of refugees – they don’t have a lot of choices and generally whatever decision they make will have consequences. So in most cases it becomes a case of choosing the choice that will do the least damage,” she said.

“For them, the choices have to be about surviving day to day.”

Zinah said the exercises seemed to have the desired impact on the youths.

“In the education tent, I spoke in Arabic – my mother tongue. I then asked them, ‘If you were to suddenly find yourself in a school that was all-Arabic, with no English speakers, would you pass all your subjects? Would it be hard to make friends, communicate or even know what’s happening?’

“I then asked them ‘If a refugee came to your school and they didn’t speak English, would you approach them?’ and they all said yes. I asked why and they said ‘Because they’re still people, and maybe we could help them’.

“I feel like the lessons really hit home.”

Each year the Illawarra Refugee Challenge seeks to teach a new cohort about the realities of refugee life – who they are, the conditions they find themselves in and the circumstances that resulted in them becoming refugees, such as seeking asylum.

MCCI Refugee and Youth Support general manager Allyson Pazos said the challenge, now in its seventh year, provided students exposure to real case scenarios to inform, demystify and dispel misconceptions and misinformation around refugee life.

“A key part of the challenge is what we call our ‘Living Books’ – former refugees in conversation with the students to share real stories about real people, and answer questions,” she said.

“The students are then trained to become the facilitators of the challenge, they are tasked with sharing the message with their fellow students in an interaction tour of life as a refugee that they create.”

“They’re welcomed by the ‘border guard’ and then they might attend a camp, see a doctor or build a shelter.”

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Along the way, they gain awareness and knowledge – an effective tool in one of MCCI’s core functions.

“It leads to social cohesion and harmony but also empathy for refugees in our region,” Allyson said.

“Young people tell us after the sessions that they didn’t know what a refugee was, not really, let alone had they contemplated how difficult a journey it must be, how hard it is to settle in a new country after a trauma, the emotional heartache around leaving your home, your culture, your family, the challenge of learning a new language and the lay of an entirely new land.”

For more information visit the MCCI website.

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