Davos ‘Refugee Run’ brings camp experience closer for privileged delegates

Billionaire class exposed to immersive descent into daily life in camp for displaced persons

Thu, Jan 23, 2014, 06:39

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg may be the world’s newest billionaire, but she will mark the occasion fighting for food and scrabbling in dirt with machine guns pointed in her face. She is one of the global leaders in Davos scheduled to attend “Refugee Run”, an immersive and distressing descent into daily life in a camp for displaced persons.

Organised by the Crossroads Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation based in Hong Kong, Refugee Run is designed to make you look beyond the abstraction of data, such as the two million Syrians displaced from their war-torn homeland.

Crossroads believes that only when world leaders experience the chaotic conditions refugees endure will they experience real empathy and act.

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I’m in the first group trooping down the stairs of a Davos school, clutching an ID card. For the next 30 minutes I am Ajmal Mounir, the card reads, a 17-year-old quarry worker with good health but no prospects.

After a moment’s silence in the darkened cellar, a curtain is whipped back and the guns come out. Shouting soldiers burst in, hustling us this way and that. In the noisy, humid air it’s hard to take in my surroundings: the floor covered in straw; rusting corrugated iron shacks leaning against the walls; improvised tents hanging on washing lines. A tired man in a headscarf hands out battered tin plates as people dash in every direction.

The first minutes pass in a blur of arbitrary and contradictory barked orders. “Get down on the ground, heads down!” “Get up, into the tent, go to sleep!” “Get up!” “Kneel!”

Refugees are split up into groups. I am handed a slate and, in a field school, taught my first curving characters in a foreign language. Is it Arabic? Farsi? The tired teacher gets increasingly frustrated as we are unable to repeat the sounds.

The lesson is interrupted and we are ordered out, again at gunpoint. An illegal gun is discovered, then stolen rations prompt angry recriminations from the camp leader. The menace of random violence hangs in the air as women are separated from men.

A shot rings out and a young woman’s lifeless body is carried out as another woman sobs quietly. In the distance, a baby wails. There are no moments of peace in this camp. Then, as the chaos builds, the words ring out: “The simulation is over.”

The lights come on and David Begbie switches back from manic camp organiser to Crossroads Foundation director.

“A friend of mine from Iraq said this was just 15 per cent of what his brothers and sisters lived through on an everyday basis,” he said.

For Mr Begbie, bringing Refugee Run to Davos is the chance to reach everybody – governments, companies and NGOs – needed to co-operate to improve the situation of refugees worldwide and needy civilians at home.

Of particular concern at this year’s World Economic Forum is the growing crisis with Syrian refugees. Seven leading aid agencies and human rights groups issued a joint statement yesterday describing the humanitarian crisis in Syria as “the worst of our time”.

The NGOs, including Oxfam International, World Vision and Amnesty International, said nearly three years of civil war had left half of Syria’s population dependent on humanitarian aid and subject to disease and starvation that “defies the basic norms of a civilised world”.

As Syrian talks got underway yesterday in Montreux in Switzerland, the NGOs conceded that agreeing a negotiated peace would be difficult but “ensuring humanitarian aid reaches all those in need shouldn’t be”.

Back in the Davos cellar, those involved in staging the Refugee Run tell their stories. David Livingstone, a simulation soldier, fled northern Uganda after six months in the army of guerrilla leader Joseph Kony to a displaced persons camp housing 1.5 million people. “It was the worst place with 1,000 children dying a week,” he said. “We need you to be a voice for the voiceless out there.”

Alexandra Chen, a 25-year-old regional child protection and psychosocial advisor with Mercy Corps, says refugees are often distraught to realise they face a renewed struggle for food and shelter when they leave their homes to enter a camp.

She has seen first-hand the difference the Refugee Run experience can make on visitors. “I’ve seen men sobbing on their wives’ shoulders because they realised for the first time here how, their entire lives, they never cared,” she said.

Gilbert Probst, managing director of the OpenForum hosting the event says: “This will hopefully be a catalyst to create more awareness than discussion panels.

“Hearing is good but you forget fast. Something like this is often the only way of really learning.”

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