The longest hour: A refugee resettlement simulation drives home the hardship and heartbreak of trying to enter America

The number of refugees granted admission to the United States has dropped dramatically since Donald Trump took office. Photo: Lachen Parks The number of refugees granted admission to the United States has dropped dramatically since Donald Trump took office. Photo: Lachen Parks

My name is Abebi. I am a 12-year-old girl and I live in Nigeria. One day while I was at school, a group of men with guns burst in and kidnapped my entire class. The men were from the jihadist terrorist group Boko Haram, which means “no Western education.” They want to establish Sharia, or Islamic law, in my country, and are known for their brutality toward women and girls. 

After months of captivity—during which I was forced to cook and clean for the men, and to serve as a decoy that allowed them to lure and attack other men—I was able to escape. But now I don’t know where to go. I don’t know if my village or my home even exists, nor whether my family is alive. It is clear that I cannot stay in Nigeria and risk recapture. I have heard that there is someone who can take me to Ghana, where I can stay in a refugee camp and apply for resettlement in the United States.

My hope is that I can one day go to school again, and feel safe, and remember who I am—the person I want to be. 

I am not actually Abebi, but I assumed her identity for a role-play simulation called “Walk 6,000 Miles in My Shoes: A Refugee Resettlement Simulation Experience.” The Charlottesville Office of Human Rights hosted the event Monday at Northside Library as part of Welcoming Week, a national movement that seeks to raise awareness of the benefits of having immigrants live in our communities.

The simulation was developed in 2015 by a former Office of Human Rights employee, Paola Salas, in consultation with faculty and students from UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and staff from the International Rescue Committee. It dramatizes the many hurdles refugees face on the road to resettlement—an exercise that seems especially important now, as the United States, once a world leader in refugee resettlement, has become increasingly hostile to immigrants and refugees.

Shortly after taking office, President Trump temporarily froze refugee admissions—and then cut the limit to half of what it had been. In the current fiscal year the administration has capped admissions at 30,000, down from 85,000 in 2016. Trump is reportedly considering a further reduction in the fiscal year that begins October 1. 

In the event, part of the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights Welcoming Week, 20 people played the role of refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S. Photo: Lachen Parks

The clock is ticking

After I and 19 other participants filed into the library meeting room, we faced a maze of tables and crowd-control stanchions. Around the perimeter were nine stations, each representing a government agency or aid organization and staffed by trained volunteers playing the roles of bureaucrats, medical personnel, and security officers. These people would lead us—the refugees—through the steps of the resettlement application process. In the middle of the room was “Camp Hope,” which represented the various refugee camps where our characters, who were all from different countries of origin, would live once we reached our asylum countries. 

High above everything in the room, projected prominently on the wall, was a blue screen with a graphic that measured the five-year span of the simulation. Every minute represented a month, each 12 minutes a year. As I learned, it was extremely important to keep an eye on that clock, because just about every document I received came with an expiration date—identification, vaccinations, paperwork approvals, food and water supply vouchers. “This isn’t a game, it’s a simulation” said Todd Niemeier of the Office of Human Rights. “This is a visceral experience. It’s going to be frustrating at times. It’s going to be confusing at times.”

Our first task was to get across the border from our countries of origin into our asylum countries. This was easier for those whose profiles included resources like passports, money, or family members who could help pay a smuggler. My character, Abebi, had none of these advantages. It took five months just for me to arrange passage to Ghana.

Upon arrival there, I checked in at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees station. I was given a voucher for shelter at Camp Hope and told I would need to get vaccinations at the medical station. Because I had arrived so late in the year (it was already June at this point), the UNHCR had run out of vouchers for food and water supplies. They told me I could ask about getting these supplies at the medical station.

I got in line at the medical station—and waited two months to be seen. 

With proof of vaccinations in hand, I returned to UNHCR to apply for my identification card. But I was told there was a backlog, and I’d have to come back in a few months to apply—after which it would probably take six months to process. This was an enormous setback. Without identification, I could not begin the resettlement application process. It was almost November of Year 1, and I would be stuck at Camp Hope until June of Year 2.

Frustrated and desperate to get further along, I would have made easy prey for the agitators milling about Camp Hope, trying to recruit new members for terrorist groups by convincing refugees the whole resettlement process was corrupt. The agitators give you anything you need—IDs, documents, supply vouchers—in exchange for your pledge. Problem is, all the documents are fake and when you try to use them, you could lose eligibility for resettlement. Luckily, I was never approached.

When June of Year 2 arrived, I moved quickly from picking up my ID at UNHCR to getting a referral to a resettlement support center to finally start the application process. I momentarily felt a sense of triumph. Then I remembered I was really just at the beginning of another process. So, it was time to get back in line.

In August, I had my intake interview at the RSC. They asked a lot of questions about my history, such as “Were you persecuted for your ethnicity in your country of origin?” My answers were given numerical ratings. How those numbers added up determined whether I could even be considered for resettlement. 

This is where the journey ends for a lot of real-life refugees whose situations aren’t considered high priority. However, the dangerous situation with Boko Haram in Nigeria earned me medium priority. But before I could proceed to my pre-USCIS security screening, a bit of simulation business: I had to roll a single dice. If I got a one or a six, I would have to choose a random Crisis Card that could introduce anything from temporary bureaucratic setbacks to a natural disaster that destroys my shelter to a terrorist bombing that takes my life.

A powerful tool

A roll of the dice is just one metaphor for the many vicissitudes a refugee can face when seeking resettlement in the United States. The hardship, the repeated dashing of hope, the threats of violence or death (often realized, unfortunately), the lack of security, the bureaucratic roadblocks—all of these things, many of which I experienced by simulation, compose the soul-crushing reality that countless people across the world face in real life.

According to Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville, there are approximately 68 million displaced people in the world. About 26 million of those are classified as refugees—people who have fled their country of origin and sought asylum in another, under the auspices of the U.N. Of those 26 million people, Kuhr says, fewer than 1 percent will have the opportunity to resettle in another country.

“I think the simulation is a powerful learning tool for people to just get a tiny window into that experience,” says Kuhr. “It helps people understand all of the bureaucratic and administrative hurdles that refugees have to go through. And how some people make it and some people don’t—and it’s hard to even understand why. You get the impact of that even in that short period of time.”

On Monday night, when the clock ran out on the simulation, only one of the refugees had made it through the process. A 10-year-old girl from Ukraine whose parents had both died in the conflict there, she arrived in Charlottesville and was awaiting placement in foster care. Other participants had died. But most were stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

My name is Abebi. I am 17 years old. Five years ago, after I escaped my terrorist captors in Nigeria, I fled to Ghana, where I was granted asylum and have lived in a refugee camp ever since. I am still in the midst of applying for resettlement in the United States. Last year, I was robbed, and my food vouchers were taken. That setback cost me months of progress. Despite my frustration, I remain hopeful that I will one day realize my dream of a new life in a country where, as a young woman, I can safely pursue an education and become the person I want to be. 


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