View the photos full screen or see the Flickr set to get a closer look. Photos by Nick Onken
Displaced for a day
We know it’s not a refugee camp. The typhoid’s not deadly. Students stay for hours, not years. But, somewhere in the Refugee Project, the refugee experience comes alive.
Waiting on the sidewalk in a loose tunic and flat-topped hat, Andrew Hays felt a flutter of self-consciousness. He was one of four Seattle Pacific University students wearing traditional Somali garb in the middle of the city and — to make matters worse — a man in jeans was walking toward them with a look of concern.

“Why are you wearing that?” the man asked in a thick Ethiopian accent.

“We’re doing a simulation,” Hays responded, feeling ridiculous.

“Don’t dress like that here,” the man pleaded. “When I came here, I dressed like that. People don’t like it.”

Hays was stunned. “It was one of those cliché moments that I didn’t expect to really happen,” he says.

It was a moment courtesy of the daylong Refugee Project, hosted by international Christian relief and development agency World Relief to help Seattleites walk in the shoes – or the burkas, kaftans, and coats – of the thousands of world refugees who travel to the area each year. SPU sends student teams to take part twice annually.

“The more I interact with people who are different than me, the more I get an accurate perspective of God’s heartbeat. I grew up thinking that God was like me: white, American, and spoke English. That’s a very narrow mindset.”
—Sophomore Hannah McMillen
Hays has since participated in three more Refugee Projects and served as the SPU student coordinator for the program. “I’ve learned that violence, suffering, and separation are often the typical stories of refugees,” he says. “I don’t doubt the stories I hear anymore.”

A glimpse of reality

At the Refugee Project, participants first learn facts about refugees before adopting a family’s story for an hour-and-a-half simulation. This includes memorizing a character’s name, place of origin, and job. Then, a “family” group is turned loose in a fictional refugee camp (the International District in Seattle), where they go to a feeding station, a United Nations interview, and a health screening. After the simulation, students hear stories from a refugee living in Seattle, and then travel to Kent, Washington, to spend hours eating and talking with a recently resettled refugee family.

“The simulation highlights some of the struggle that doesn’t come across in a statement like, β€˜It’s hard to live in a refugee camp,’” says Owen Sallee, SPU’s coordinator for Urban Involvement. As staff advisor for 10 Refugee Projects, he’s seen discomfort — brought on by wearing strange clothes, being treated with suspicion, and listening to refugees tell their stories — instill a new level of compassion in students.

A question on the refugee project application made Cynthia Haan think. “They asked about my first impression of someone from a foreign country,” says the sophomore. “I realized I never thought about anyone’s story before.”

But on the project, she met a refugee family from Iraq — a husband, wife, and their baby boy. The husband told of how he had to flee after several death threats came because of his job as an interpreter for CBS News. “I never had to worry about anything like that,” Haan says. “Now when I see someone I wonder: Why are they here? How long have they been here?”

Sophomore Hannah McMillen came to the project already asking those questions about refugee students she had tutored in Seattle. During the Refugee Project, she felt a tremendous amount of pressure as someone playing the role of the male spokesperson in an Afghan family. The World Relief volunteer, acting as a United Nations worker, spoke in a condescending tone and asked questions meant to trip her up. For example, she asked her to identify Afghanistan and all the other “stans” on a map. “Their questions made me feel guilty,” she says. “Like I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

This was all to demonstrate how hard it is for refugees to leave a camp: Only 0.5 percent ever do. UN interviewers have limited spots to offer in countries of asylum, and therefore must weed people out during the interview process. The exercise made McMillen think about the teen refugees she helped tutor in Seattle. “I’m proud that they made it through a really rigorous process,” she says. “There’s so much stacked against them.”

The experience motivated McMillen to contact a refugee organization in Denver, Colorado, over the summer, and she and her parents ended up hosting a group of seven Ugandan orphans, ages 11 to 15, in her hometown of Golden, Colorado. McMillen had been to Uganda before and knew some of the native language, Luganda. “They were really impressed,” she says, adding they loved teaching her more words.

The girls and McMillen sang along to High School Musical, went swimming and kayaking, and jumped on the trampoline. They also played Swahili hand-clapping games (even though no one knew what the words they said meant), and laughed — a lot.

“The more I interact with people who are different than me, the more I get an accurate perspective of God’s heartbeat,” she says. “I grew up thinking that God was like me: white, American, and spoke English. That’s a very narrow mindset.”

Finding a New Balance

Like McMillen, Hays found that getting to know people from other cultures has changed his worldview. He’s seen a 13-year-old boy ask for homework help on a Saturday, and a young man bike 12 miles just to get to work. “The spirit of ambition is something I’ve seen a lot,” Hays says.

This summer, he attended a Hispanic church and worked at a grocery store with many Spanish-speaking coworkers in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. He wanted an opportunity to experience the Latin culture before studying abroad in Costa Rica this Autumn Quarter. At times, he’s been surprised at how uncomfortable being a minority can be.

“One time I played basketball with 17 Hispanic guys,” he says. “This one kid came up to me and said, ‘I want to guard the white kid.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘Let’s see what you got now.’ The thing is … I’m really not that good. It was embarrassing.”

Despite some mild anxiety about staying with a host family, Hays is thrilled to immerse himself in Costa Rican culture. “I’m finding that I fit in almost better in other cultures,” he says “It started with my first Refugee Project, and that wasn’t enough, so I became a leader and did three projects. Now, it’s time to take the next step to figure out what other people have to bring to the table. I don’t want to live a life stuck in my own world.”
View the Displaced for a Day Slideshow

By Julia Siemens, Photos By Nick Onken
Read other Feature Stories about SPU students and alums.