Building a Refugee Camp with Humanitarian Values

Student explains refugee camp layout and services provided.

Student explains refugee camp layout and services provided.

Story by Bob Wiltz, Central Illinois Chapter, Volunteer

Passionate and well-intentioned as they are, many American youth possess limited worldviews and nationalistic values that foster the belief that global problems such as hunger, poverty, and even war exist but are far removed from their daily lives. As a result, many young people find it difficult to relate to and appreciate the suffering endured by those who must literally run for their lives from war in their own country. Undergraduates in a workshop in Chicago recently engaged in an activity designed to give them a deeper understanding of the experience of refugees fleeing the armed conflict in Syria, as well as the experience of those who attempt to provide protection and assistance.

About 40 undergraduates were broken into five groups, assigned roles as humanitarian aid workers, and tasked with designing a camp that would provide all the services found in a refugee camp (water and sanitation, food and nutrition, shelter and non-food items, health action, psychosocial support, etc) for 10,000 refugees for at least six months. 

I explained that the goal was to design the camp so that services were provided in a way that respects the human dignity of all recipients, including vulnerable groups such as children, women and girls, older people, those with HIV and AIDS, and persons with disabilities. Additionally, participants were encouraged to recognize the natural resilience of all human beings including refugees, and to focus on identifying the skills, strengths and resources of the displaced community that might be of help in meeting their own needs.

Students are given an overview of the services provided at refugees camps, and instructions for designing their own refugee camp.

Students are given an overview of the services provided at refugees camps, and instructions for designing their own refugee camp.

The simulated camp was situated in southeastern Turkey, where more than 700,000 Syrian refugees have fled in recent years. Students were prepared for the activity by a presentation on the logistical challenges of providing humanitarian aid and by a vivid description of the terrifying flight of a real-life refugee fleeing the war in Syria.

Each of the breakout groups included an “Artistic Director” who designed the camp layout as the group discussed how to provide their service.

Once the students completed their task, the five artists collaborated to design a single camp based on the input from all five service groups. The artists then explained the composite layout to all the participants.

Break-out group working to design refugee camp.

Break-out group working to design refugee camp.

The activity concluded with a final debriefing during which the participants discussed their experience and were called to action by encouraging them to visit the UN Refugee Agency website. Ideas posted on the web page include donating, learning about the Syrian refugee crisis, sharing information on social media, and adding a banner to a blog or website.

In the debriefing, students expressed their surprise at the sheer complexity of providing even basic services for refugees in even one moderately small camp. They described the compassion they experienced as they struggled with the suffering endured by so many people, and their frustration as they realized the enormity of their task. Perhaps the most significant lessons learned centered on the importance for human dignity of including refugees and vulnerable groups in the process of planning to meet their own needs, and the challenges in doing so. As these American students of today become the global leaders of tomorrow, it is hoped activities such as this will provide them with a deeper appreciation for humanitarian values that may result in a more peaceful world in the future, and a consequent need for fewer camps for those fleeing the ravages of war.

The activity described in this blog is loosely based on concepts derived from Module 5 of Exploring Humanitarian Law, especially Exploration 5B. Further information about this curriculum designed for young people can be found by clicking here.

Hilary Duerksen and Michelle McSweeney of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago collaborated on the final product and participated as moderators along with Professor Nezih Altay, Department of Management, Driehaus College of Business, DePaul University. The Workshop at DePaul University was entitled Humanitarian Action & Contemporary Challenges in Armed Conflict and was conducted February 9, 2014.