Refugee program to be shared nationally

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

St. Agnes School student Thomas Koshewa was “treated” at the medical station during a refugee camp simulation at St. Agnes in late October. Treating him are, from left, St. Agnes parent Therese Hurford, Chris Clements from Catholic Charities and Denise Helline, also a parent of a St. Agnes student. (Photo Special to The Record)
St. Agnes School student Thomas Koshewa was “treated” at the medical station during a refugee camp simulation at St. Agnes in late October. Treating him are, from left, St. Agnes parent Therese Hurford, Chris Clements from Catholic Charities and Denise Helline, also a parent of a St. Agnes student. (Photo Special to The Record)

A program operated by Catholic Charities of Louisville is poised to hit the national scene in the coming year. The agency’s simulated refugee camp program — offered at local schools and parishes since 2008 — has been organized into a guide book that will be published in the next few weeks.

Seeking Refuge: Forced to Flee is a 40-page curriculum guide developed by Catholic Charities of Louisville staff and local educators.

“Our premise is for Catholic Charities (agencies) around the country to (use) the guide and partner with schools and youth groups in their dioceses,” said Mark Bouchard of Catholic Charities of Louisville during an interview last week.

Bouchard said the simulation aims to help young people understand the plight of refugees. He believes the simulation is a response to the Gospel call. As he sees it, the simulation represents “The words walking out of Scripture” and into the lives of students.

When the simulation begins, students are assigned to small “family” groups. They’re given a set of circumstances typical of a refugee family and then they must navigate the camp’s series of stations. They must obtain food, medical care, language classes (they actually learn a few vocabulary words in another language) and face a variety of other challenges before being allowed to exit to a new country.

And none of those tasks are easy, said Chris Martini, a Catholic Charities staffer who helps operate the simulations. He explained that volunteers who work at each station are told to act aloof or unhelpful to increase the students’ sense of frustration. Students also may “contract” an infectious disease and be quarantined or the “school” station may be closed. Without good health or language skills, the families can’t exit the camp, he said.

“This program is designed for frustration because, frankly, a very small percentage of refugees ever get out of camps. There are entire generations that are born, live and die in camps,” Bouchard said.

Martini added that the simulation takes about three hours, but the ordeal may represent a decade or more for real refugees.

Some of those refugees fortunate enough to exit a camp have made their way to the Louisville area, thanks to the work of Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Louisville has become the home of thousands of people who fled violence and other hardships in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Since 1993, the first year records are readily available, Catholic Charities has resettled 14,700 people here, Martini said.

Danielle Wiegandt, principal of Holy Cross High School, said her students learned about refugees during a full day of activities with Catholic Charities last school year. She’s incorporated the refugee education into her Catholic social teaching curriculum.

“I’m a very social justice and Catholic social teaching-minded person and I fully embrace that as the heart of our church,” Wiegandt said. “We have refugees that are our neighbors. I think we can learn a lot from them and they can learn a lot from us. We need to build those bridges with them.”

Wiegandt noted that many refugees have been resettled in South Louisville and live near Holy Cross families. She doesn’t want her students to see refugees as “the other,” she added.

In addition to Holy Cross, the simulation was offered in 23 Catholic parishes and schools in the Archdiocese of Louisville last year. That represents a lot of progress since the program began in 2008, said Chris Clements, a Catholic Charities staff member who has operated the program from its inception.

“I used to carry around a binder of handwritten documents that I’d run off ” for volunteers helping with simulations, Clements said. “In such a small amount of time it’s become an amazing thing. That it could blow up in the nation is a really exciting thing.”

According to the guide book’s brief history section, the simulation originated with Kentucky Refugee Ministries in 2005, which had offered a Mock Refugee Camp at local schools. When that program ended, St. Barnabas Church volunteers and Clements created a similar program.

It began spreading to other parishes and schools in 2010. Soon after, Catholic Charities received a grant from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops which allowed the program to expand further, Bouchard said. The funds came from a POWR (Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees) grant.

The USCCB also offered guidance in developing the book, Bouchard said.

In addition, Karen O’Connell of the archdiocese’s Office of Lifelong Formation and Education contributed to the guide, as did more than a dozen educators and volunteers from local parishes and schools.

O’Connell, who is the archdiocese’s curriculum coordinator, praised the guide book.

“I think the finished product is very comprehensive,” she said. “It gives really concise descriptions of the stations, makes it clear what materials you need to do it and it lists follow-up activities.”

Catholic Charities generally brings volunteers who are refugees to visit students after the camp, so they can hear first hand about the lives of refugees. And then, parishes and families may want to do more — to volunteer in one of Catholic Charities’ programs to aid refugees, Bouchard said.

The agency operates an English language school; collects clothing, toys and household items for new refugee families; helps refugees find employment opportunities and teaches them to navigate their new city with the help of volunteer mentor families.

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