Story by Jess Bonnan-White, South Jersey Region, Volunteer
On a cold, rainy late March day in northern Virginia’s Bull Run Park, I was privileged to serve as volunteer staff for the first Global Refugee Simulation and Conference (GRSC), sponsored by the American Red Cross. The simulation, coordinated largely by undergraduate students, was designed to replicate conditions millions of people worldwide face each day as refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Participants of all ages arrived by bus, were questioned by representatives of “military forces,” and were registered into a simulated refugee camp. At the camp, participants were tasked with seeking mock medical assistance, forced to construct their own shelter, and attempted to seek help in identifying and locating missing relatives with the Restoring Family Links center. I served as a volunteer debrief specialist at the end of the exercise – for approximately another half-hour, participants shared their experiences with each other, asked questions, learned new aspects of the realities for refugees and IDPs, and were introduced to further steps they could take in addressing the pressing issue of rising numbers of global refugees.
With research and teaching experience in disaster response, conflict resolution, and international development, I am very familiar with textbook definitions and explanations of key issues in response to refugee crises. As an assistant professor at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, I am trained to illustrate these concepts to my students through the use of my own field mishaps and successes. I also volunteer with the Southern Shore Chapter of the Southern Jersey Region of the American Red Cross. Through opportunities to provide direct assistance, I have learned of challenges faced by those who have experienced a disaster on a local level. At the GRSC, however, I had the occasion to step out of my own expectations and understanding of disaster response, and observed how participants reflected upon and made sense of their very cold and wet afternoon. What I heard repeatedly in the debriefing sessions were questions that represented intense concern for families living through displacement.
Participants were shocked to learn that, as a result of conflict or disaster, children may be separated from families, and are forced to make their way to refugee camps alone or with strangers. They questioned what resources were available for people to learn about the welfare of missing family members or how organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross were equipped to handle such a large task over what may be several countries. Many were surprised to learn of the number of refugees that are relocated to the United States, and wondered how they are able to follow-up on the location of other family members from whom they have been separated, sometimes for months and years.
As a volunteer for the American Red Cross, I am trained in the Safe-and-Well Linking program that we employ in domestic shelter environments. I am embarrassed to admit that during the GRSC, I felt overwhelmed with the idea that global Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers could make such a difference to someone needing information about loved ones. GRSC participants asked how the International Committee of the Red Cross was contributing today to family reunification and locating missing family members. They learned that from the Philippines to Ukraine, from the US to Syria, Restoring Family Links volunteers provide one step in the road to resilience for those facing displacement due to natural and man-made disasters.
Bio: Dr. Jess Bonnan-White is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and is a volunteer for the American Red Cross. She has field experience studying conflict and disaster response in the Middle East, and focuses her work on understanding cultural barriers to disaster resilience. Follow her on Twitter: @JBWARCSNJ