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Refugee Camp Simulation Provides Eye-Opening Experience for Students

As part of Loyola Academy’s celebration of Solidarity Week in April, approximately 650 juniors in Theology and Ignatian Service Learning classes experienced a refugee camp simulation to illustrate the plight of those displaced by violence, extremism and persecution around the world.
In accordance with Pope Francis’s directive to welcome the poor and marginalized, Loyola chose the struggle of refugees and immigrants as its focus for this year’s Solidarity Week. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that more than 60 million are forcibly displaced worldwide, so this year’s theme was timely and relevant.  

“The narrative of refugees and immigrants is deeply ingrained in our salvation history and in line with the Society of Jesus’ call to social justice,” explains Mr. Jeff Sullivan, SJ, campus minister and Arrupe Service Program coordinator. “My hope is that students were able to see that there is a real crisis in the world, where people are struggling for the basic needs of food, shelter and safety.”

The refugee camp simulation symbolized the experience of displaced individuals on a small but meaningful scale. Approximately 150 student volunteers and 30 faculty members led student participants through re-creations of food, water and medical tents, a documentation station, educational exercises and a detention center.

Before arriving in the East Gym, Theology teachers issued a unique ID card to each junior. The ID card assigned a temporary persona—including name, age, place of origin, employment status and education level—and was used to group and separate simulation participants.

“We often generalize and think of all refugees as poor or uneducated,” says Sullivan, SJ. “But they are just like us. Many had jobs, and then war or conflict happened and they had to leave their homes right away—without belongings, without proper documentation.”

Notably, the ID card personas represented actual stories of refugees that had gone through Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) programs.

“The narratives on the ID cards that students were asked to adopt were not fictional,” explains Sullivan. “Afterward, we asked students to pray for the person whose story they enacted.”

The rotation through each station lasted approximately five minutes. There was an education component at each station, and students learned about the harsh realities of detainment, cramped living spaces, lack of access to water and education, limited nutrition and inadequate healthcare. Along the way, language students spoke in foreign dialects to increase confusion and further heighten awareness of the challenges endured by refugees.

Christopher LeCompte ’17 helped to create the detention and documentation stations and run the shelter station later in the day. “I thought the shelter station and others were informational and helped the juniors to see and experience the problem firsthand,” he says. “I learned more about the living and sleeping conditions and a lot about how we document and take in refugees.”    

“Our simulation was just a little taste of what life is like for a refugee,” says Brian Vance ’17. “The pictures that we saw in the presentation really opened up my mind to what it is actually like as a refugee. The houses that they have are a lot less nice than the shelters that I worked on in the gym during the simulation.”

What more is Loyola doing?
In addition to Solidary Week, the Loyola Academy community is actively involved in service to and support of the refugee community. Ignatian Service Learning classes and the Arrupe Service Learning Program send 50–60 volunteers per week to Refugee One, Madonna Mission and Catholic Charities to work directly with refugees and their children. Loyola’s Gonzaga Drive, the Freshman Day of Service and the Parent/Student Day of Service have all benefited organizations that support refugee resettlement in our community. And, most importantly, Loyola is sponsoring a refugee family from Eritrea through the donation of household supplies and help with English language acquisition.

“As a Catholic school, it is imperative that we be aware of the dignity that is stripped away from millions of people because of war and violence,” says Sullivan. “Just like Jesus, we should respond to the needs of others when they are being persecuted or harmed. I want students to see the human dignity of all persons...and not statistics or preconceived ideas about refugees and immigrants.”


Loyola parent Shannon Sweetnam and her family have also adopted a family from Syria. Read her Chicago Tribune letter to the editor about her experience here
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