On Friday, 27 youth ranging from elementary school to high school met at College Avenue Congregational Church to take part in an overnight refugee camp experience called "Displace Me!"
With only cardboard boxes to sleep in, saltine crackers to eat and limited water to drink, participants were transported into the world faced by thousands of refugees uprooted from their homes because of the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur and 2.5 million have fled to refugee camps since 2003, when local ethnic African rebels took arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination, according to The Associated Press.
During the church event, participants played several games that brought to life the hardships Darfuri refugees experience. During the blindfold challenge, family groups were forced to find one another without the use of sight in the midst of shouting voices and a blaring megaphone.
In the relay race, members of each family ran to collect pieces of paper with pictures on them representing their belongings, only to have to decide which of these belongings were absolutely essential for them to take on their exodus.
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Later, families were forced to flee the country, and in doing so had to get the members of their group across the "border" by lifting them over a rope without touching it. When their entire family had made it across, they were required to fill out an "application for residence" in a foreign language, or in their case, an unknown code.
While the games were fun and entertaining, their meaning was not lost on the young people who took part in them. After each game, the three families were given stories of actual Darfuri refugees who had gone through situations similar to those presented in the games. They were then asked questions relating to each situation, such as "What did it feel like having to find your family in the midst of all the chaos?" and "Was it hard deciding which belongings to take with you and which to leave behind?"
After the games and discussions, participants gathered in their family groups and had a meal of crackers and water in their cardboard boxes. They then painted patches for the church's second Tent of Hope, which will be sent to a refugee camp in Chad to be finished by the Darfuri refugees living there. After the painting, the young people were free to experience life in the refugee camp, and many came to realize that life without stocked refrigerators, video games, iPods and television has a way of forcing you to become more creative.
Participants soon were entertaining themselves through stargazing, box graffiti, card games and group chats. By 2 a.m., the camp was quiet and all were sleeping surprisingly comfortably in their boxes.
Rob Brittain, College Avenue Congregational Church's children and youth coordinator, described "Displace Me!" as wonderful. And he was not the only one to think so.
"I liked that it was a different idea," said Beyer High School junior John Miller. "Instead of just raising money, you're actually stepping into their shoes for a night."
For many students, this opportunity was incredibly eye opening. Rebecca Lee, a sixth-grader at Daniel J. Savage Middle School, was encouraged by the event to tell others about the state of affairs in Darfur.
"People need to realize we have better lives than so many people out there, and that we need to help those who don't have what we have," she said.
Enochs High School freshman Whitney Russell said young people can play an important part in informing others about Darfur.
"I think that if adults see that kids are so passionate about this and want to make a difference, then that will inspire them to also make a difference," she said.
Pat Roberts, one of the 18 adults helping at the event, said this realization was what "Displace Me!" was all about.
"Just helping young people to become aware about what's going on in the world is amazing," she said. "It may be just fun for some, but then again, some may end up asking questions, and that is what it's all about."
Michelle Vecchio is a senior at Whitmore Charter High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom program.