‘A Day in the Life of a Refugee’ at the World Economic Forum, 2018
“I think it is very important for us to bring the simulation to Davos, for participants to spend even 45 minutes in our shoes, because people like us often feel the world forgets us. They make policy and other decisions at their level, not ours. They don’t know what life is like on the ground.’ David Livingston Okello. Former child soldier/IDP
Our IDP and refugee colleagues, together with aid workers, again brought this programme to Davos in 2018. It offered a chance for others to take a few steps in their shoes, to have a brief simulated ‘experience’ of life for those forced from home by war. Of course, there can be no one narrative for refugees as each person’s story is different. There are, however, elements of their experience which are true for many, some even for all. This storyline, developed by refugees, IDPs and aid workers, seeks to capture those issues they consider most crucial:
- Forced displacement when home is no longer safe.
- Disempowerment when one’s future is in others’ hands.
- Inability to connect with loved ones when communication is severed.
- Insufficient resource to provide proper health care, education, food, shelter, infrastructure.
- Deepened suffering when human rights are not protected.
- Vulnerability to corruption, abuse and trafficking.
- Mental agony living with past horrors: depression, trauma, PTSD.
- Depth of longing for asylum status, right of abode and right to work.
This 75-minute simulation compresses time. The ‘journey’ taken during it may, in reality, be weeks, months or much more.
All cast and crew were volunteers and themselves refugees, IDPs or people working in the humanitarian space. All participated because they long to see deepened empathy for refugees and, with that, strategic solutions found for today’s displacement challenge, one unprecedented in scale.
“We need to fight to make this world safe for its refugees and IDPs.” Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2005-2015, Secretary-General for the United Nations, undertaking the refugee simulation.
More on this below but, short story, there is power in empathy. When people have stepped, even briefly, into the shoes of others, the conversation changes and they are considerably more motivated to engage. We then talk with them about their skill sets, their networks, etc. We believe that, in the complex landscape of displacement, there is a role for everybody.
For example: After Microsoft undertook simulations, they became very involved in the humanitarian arena. In 2017, they asked if we could help hook them up with refugee need in Greece. We did so and they took hardware, software and personnel to establish a computer centre for unaccompanied minors living on the streets of Athens.
Every refugee is a unique person whose life experiences vary enormously, even in a conflict context. So there can be no single storyline that captures everybody’s life journey. There is no universal narrative.
At a deeper level, however, there are some factors that are shared by most, sometimes all, displaced people: the risks, challenges and painful difficulties that comprise their internal story. Our narrative has therefore been crafted to highlight some of those with the goal of inviting participants to respond to them. Our team of refugees, IDPs and aid workers have iterated this programme, over the years, and we currently highlight the following.
- Displacement: home is no longer safe. We therefore start the simulation with participants being forced to leave their village. There is a sad, but common, perception that refugees are opportunistic and simply want to force their way into stronger economies. Most that we know simply want to go home, but can’t. We think that important to get ‘said’.
- Disempowerment: one’s future now in others’ hands. Many participants comment on the impact of this element. People who are used to being in charge of their institutions find it particularly powerful that they can no longer call the shots.
- Stress: separation from loved ones, depression, PTSD/panic attacks from past horrors, worry. Participants must bargain for information on their families. It can be costly and difficult with weak results leaving them queuing ‘daily’ for information.
- Vulnerability: risk of exploitation, corruption, human rights violations, with little legal recourse. Our cast replicates some of the ways these exist in conflict zones and participants often tell us this, too, is impactful because they are used to much more robust legal infrastructure.
- Dearth of medical care: shortage of personnel, equipment and essential medicine. The lack of medical resource is quickly evident though, behind a curtain, it may be available if participants choose to bargain or make concessions.
- The gender factor: not all, but still too many, contexts see women misused and abused. Where women must deal with it, too, in displacement, it exacerbates other vulnerabilities they battle.
- Inadequate education: more refugee children out of school than in. Our school is not always open, reflecting global trends: the risk of displaced children being ‘a lost generation.’
- Weak infrastructure: lack of power, inadequate shelter, little or no Internet access. This camp is not overly comfortable or facilitative: just one more element to help paint the picture of displacement challenges for participants used to affluence and ample provision.
- Lack of resource: higher proportion of refugees in developing nations or fragile states. Much is made of the absorption of refugees into wealthier nations, but the greater truth is that far more are seeking refuge in countries which already struggle to meet the needs of their own populations. The pressure rarely makes the news so we long to highlight it.
- Right of abode/work: the all-important questions which may take generations to answer. The UNHCR asked us to include this and we think it valuable too. Participants have just a taste of their future fate as they learn, one by one, if they have been granted asylum or will be deported back to their war zones.
After being exposed to these issues, we then talk with participants about where they fit in terms of strategies to help address them.
When one senior participant from the Adecco Group undertook the simulation, she commented on the synergies she saw between refugees’ need for work and the work of her company which had, itself, been exploring that as well. They are indeed now involved on the policy side. In their own words, they have said, “We had a task force in place regarding the integration of refugees in the labour market. Participating in the refugee simulation reinforced, for us, the necessity to act.”
In targeting the above challenges, the narrative draws upon experiences we have collectively met over the past twenty years’ humanitarian work supporting displaced people in a range of regions, ethnicities and cultures. Those have included Rwanda, Kenya, the Balkans, East Timor, Cambodia, Afghanistan, DR Congo, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, South Sudan, Northern Uganda and most recently Myanmar/Bangladesh.
The storyline is therefore a composite. It is not, and could not attempt, to be an exact replica of any one scenario. It draws, instead, upon a range of elements we have met routinely across these years and conflict zones, in one form or another
Our cast, all unpaid volunteers, are people working amongst those impacted by conflict in various ways.
All are either refugees, IDPs, aid workers or others active in the humanitarian sector. We do not use professional actors. We have asked ourselves whether we should but always have erred on the side of authenticity and credibility, bringing folk to the cast who live or have lived with this reality themselves and can guide the narrative, tone, set etc.
Of course, that choice may mean the acting standard falls short of Hollywood, but we hold to the value that credibility is all important and, anyway, remain encouraged that many participants tell us they find the cast performance very powerful indeed. Often, we’re told, unforgettably so.
Most important of all, having actual refugees, IDPs and aid workers in the cast means that, following the experiential programme, they can interact with participants who want to help make change happen. Being experienced, they can advise and guide appropriate engagement. See examples in this year’s cast here.
We value all communication around displacement: talks, discussion panels, powerpoints, big data, videos, academic articles, the gamut. Given the breadth and depth of the challenge, as many of us as possible should be talking about it.
When one takes a few steps ‘in the shoes’ of displaced people, however, even though only through simulation, we see that conversation change. Why? As one CEO at Davos said, “It’s the difference between hearing and being.” Another added, “Reading a thousand books would not have taught me what I learned in the past hour”.
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, put it this way: “Everyone should do this. It will change the way you see refugees.”
Dan Brutto, when undertaking this as President of UPS International, said, “The simulation was as close to real as I could imagine. I now have a much greater appreciation for the needs of displaced people and will be an advocate for sending the message.”
Our refugee colleagues explain the difference this way. They quote the old proverb: ‘I can’t understand a man until I have walked a mile in his shoes.’ We can’t, of course, offer a mile. We can offer only a few steps, but even they seem to prove this proverb true.
Another proverb, also ancient, may help explain it too. ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Somehow experiential learning is different from a straight cerebral process.
It is a big step, yes, to enter another ‘world’ as it were, and to make that experience strong enough to help people leave behind, even briefly, their normal head space. It is difficult, but, from participant feedback, it is not impossible. A few examples.
“Thank you…for the very powerful experience…It was very well done – unsettling, authentic, transformative.” Amy E Roth, International Justice Mission
“A remarkable experience… One is moved, emotionally, out of normality, to a better understanding of the fears and dangers present for refugees.” Jeffrey Sachs, Director, Earth Institute, Colombia University and author of the End of Poverty
“The bit of Davos I will remember for the rest of my life.” Sir John Gieve, Harvard University
“I don’t know how anyone could do this experience and not come out morally obligated to do something about it.” Paul Ellingstad, former Director, Office of Global Social Innovation, HP
The primary goal of ‘A Day in the Life of a Refugee’ is consciousness-raising, not fund-raising. We do not use the event, therefore, as a fundraiser. By the same token, however, we do use the event to ask participants to consider their place in the refugee crisis and, following the sessions, brainstorm with participants about ways they can respond. We believe all have a place and can make a difference. We also believe, given the scale of today’s challenge, it will take require involvement by many if we are to see displaced people given the support they deserve.
Primarily, we encourage participants to consider engagement with their core competencies, utilising their company’s strengths and/or services to provide strategic solutions that are sustainable and scalable. It would be at their discretion whether they need/choose to include a financial component.
For those of us who have never faced the pain of displacement, this may be a new and intense experience. The longer our team works among displaced people, however, the more we realise that the ‘intensity’ in this programme is only a tiny fraction of what they may live with for a lifetime. We can give nothing more than a ‘living snapshot’, as some call it.
That intensity can see participants deeply moved. Some participants may even be moved to tears, particularly during the debrief when they hear real life stories from cast members who work daily with refugees. Tears are not the end goal, however. Our main goal is to see people find their place of connection with this massive need.
We have three goals: three “E”s, as we describe them.
Education, hoping people learn more about refugees.
Empathy, seeking to help people’s actual understanding and concern.
Engagement, helping facilitate engagement with the issue, using people’s strengths, personal and professional, along with their networks and spheres of influence.
David Livingstone, a former child soldier under the Lord’s Resistance Army, will travel from Northern Uganda, where he serves in a post conflict zone, in order to be participate in this simulation, as he has done many times before. He answers that question this way:
- Of thought leaders and policy makers he says, “I think it is very important for us to bring the simulation before the rich and powerful in Davos, for them to spend even 45 minutes in our shoes. I say that because people like us often feel the world forgets us. They make policy and other decisions at their level, not ours. They don’t know what life is like on the ground. Those decisions may look good on paper, but in reality our suffering may not be alleviated through them. They may not benefit us on the ground. In fact the implementation of them may not even reach us. We may not ever see it. The voice of the voiceless should be heard more loudly so that the decisions made are really right for us here.”
- Of business leaders, he says, “At Davos, we can get directly connected with people who can make things happen. Business leaders can help us, through their company services or products, without having to go through bureaucracy or red tape. They can make things happen to change life for us where we are at, straight from Davos to us at the grassroots level.”
He may be best at summing up our goal in being at Davos, though more detail follows in this FAQ. The reality is that many of the people who come to the World Economic Forum have massive global reach. The Forum sees attendees from governments, major businesses, major IGOs/NGOs and thought leadership in academia. They can leverage their positions to see policy decisions and international agreements empower refugees, rather than leaving them stranded for what can be decades.
One example: In 2017, a Crossroads team visited European refugee camps in which policy decisions made had resulted in massive change for the refugees. Policy changes saw major NGOs withdraw from the area because funding was no longer available. Medical care quickly dwindled. Education was shut down. Those seeking asylum had less chance of being granted it and the camps, therefore, now have to house three times as many refugees as they were designed to shelter. Overcrowding is dangerous now. Sanitation is inadequate. People are reaching desperation level, with PTSD, panic attacks and suicidal behavior taking hold.
So, one of the major reasons we want to put the refugee simulation before policy makers and business leaders who gather at Davos is that we want them to understand the impact of their decisions. Piers Cumberlege, formerly Head of Strategic Partnerships at the WEF, and now one of our volunteers in Davos, puts it this way. “We hold discussions, at the Forum, at 35,000 feet and those discussions are important. But this simulation brings that discussion down to ground zero.”
A refugee worker, who had over 25 years in the field, told us, “This is as close as we can bring people to the camps without actually taking them there. This is as close as it gets.”
Much is spoken of the fact that attendees of Davos are rich. Given their positions, no doubt they are. But that is not why we attend. For us, it is far more important that they use their global position and influence than their personal wealth. There is a matrix of factors needed to deal with today’s displacement challenge, one unprecedented in scale. Davos tends to bring together people with a range of roles to play in that complex landscape. That’s why we go.
We run them, year round, in Hong Kong where the Government of the HKSAR provides a provision for our work at peppercorn rent.
We have also travelled with some of our programmes to Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, UK, USA, Vietnam. And, yes, once a year, we bring the refugee programme to Davos, Switzerland.
Done badly, it could be. Our group of refugees, IDPs and aid workers therefore work very hard, together, to guide the narrative and the tone. We don’t want it to be done in a way that is not tasteful or respectful. We do, however, want it to be powerful as our fellow human beings are suffering in ways not easily understood by those of us whom life has dealt a kinder hand.
This kind of question highlights a dilemma all communicators face, we believe, when trying to represent difficult issues. War is an ugly, dirty topic, seeing people brutalized in unspeakable ways. How then could/should one communicate their depth of pain, respectfully, to a world that needs to hear and respond?
Is it is in good taste, for example, to make a war movie? The answer, surely, must depend on the way it is made. Movies can be well crafted and powerful. A movie such as Blood Diamond, and similar, for example, powerfully portrays some horrendous realities, but does so, we believe, well. In fact, a movie like that has the potential for advocacy because it helps alert the world to the reality of ethical sourcing for diamonds in the context, yes, of conflict. We cannot hope to be so professional but, in heart, hope to be responsible in the same kind of way, and also a voice of advocacy.
Could, though, war movies be made in bad taste? It’s possible, yes. Likewise, could theatre, the fine arts, even Powerpoints or written articles on war be undertaken in poor taste? Our understanding is that every form of communication may be undertaken well or badly.
As stated elsewhere, therefore, our programme is co-created and constantly re-visited by our group of refugees, IDPs and aid workers to stay vigilant over its content and tone.
Our form of communication, moreover, has a slight variation on the above in that our ‘audience’ does not watch from comfy seats. The audience is called upon to experience the issue personally. This makes it much harder, we find, to keep refugee challenges ‘at arm’s length’.
Last year, in Davos, a woman tried to articulate the programme’s power. “This is not the same as watching a video about refugees. Videos are remote. This brings it home.”
Yusra Madini, the Syrian swimmer who, together with her sister Sarah, swam their refugee boat to safety when it began to sink leaving Turkey, said to the participants in Davos, last year, “You need to do this simulation so you can understand what we went through.”
The word ‘playing’ is not one we use since it has a wide range of meanings, some of which could not be farther from the truth in representing the seriousness of this programme. That usage would be irresponsible. For example:
If the question is: Is it okay for rich and powerful people to experience being disenfranchised in a way that is entertaining, flippant or gratuitous? The answer is a resounding no. That would appal us. It would appal anybody. And it should.
If the question is: Is it okay to challenge wealthy and influential people, through a personal encounter with the refugee issue, as to whether they ought to do more to help? The answer, then, we believe, is yes. That said, it is conditional, and this is important, that is it done respectfully and consultatively with those who are displaced. Hence the fact that this programme is guided by actual refugees, IDPs and aid workers.
It is accurate to say that this programme does, yes, use a form of ‘role play’. That phrase, by its very definition, allows people from one walk of life to step into the shoes of people from another walk of life. In this case, it invites some of the world’s most powerful people to step, very briefly, into the shoes of the least powerful.
Role play has long been used in the humanitarian sector. For decades, it has been chosen as a training tool because it is effective in giving aid workers deepened understanding and empathy for those they will be serving. Our programme targets advocacy, not training, but the theory is the same. Its goal is to help people step outside their understanding into another’s and to empathise and then see how they can respond. We have people on hand to talk with them about that response, a conversation which may go on for months after Davos is over and they develop their activities.
Other than that, if we must use the word ‘play’, we would reach for it in the same way Shakespeare did in Hamlet: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” We’re after kings’ consciences, whether kings in diplomatic circles, business empires or other spheres of influence.
Decision-makers come to Davos. Decision-makers can change life for people who are displaced.
Again, to quote David Livingstone, as above, abducted as a child soldier and then, for decades, a worker among IDPs in post conflict zone,
“I think it is very important for us to bring the simulation before the rich and powerful in Davos, for them to spend even 45 minutes in our shoes. I say that because people like us often feel the world forgets us. They make policy and other decisions at their level, not ours. They don’t know what life is like on the ground.”