As darkness fell over the St. John Center campus, 81 teenagers embarked on a harrowing escape. At 8 p.m., a fun trivia game was interrupted by the sound of a siren and the ominous message that terrorists had taken over the United States. Cellphone service is down and walking on paved roads was too dangerous. They had to run for the Mexican border, keeping on the grass, in the shadows, armed with only a map and the supplies that they were allotted.
For the next three hours, they were refugees.
The dramatic scenario was a refugee simulation, part of the ninth annual Catholic Charities Summer Institute July 10-15, hosted annually by the Diocese of Little Rock Youth and Campus Ministry Office in Little Rock. Ninth through 12th-grade students participated in a week of volunteering in the community and hot topic discussion panels, including race in America and refugees.
But on Wednesday evening July 13, these were not merely teenagers. They were escaping their homes, fearing capture, an unknown culture and language and the tragic realization that they could never go home.
Because refugee resettlement is a prominent issue in the state, Liz Tingquist, diocesan director of youth and campus ministry, said it’s good for the teenagers to start forming their own social conscience, particularly during an election year.
“It’s easy to have an opinion without having walked in the shoes, and I think when you walk in the shoes of people through ministry it really softens your heart to what Jesus would want,” Tingquist said. “So we really want them maybe to have a Jesus perspective, he actually walked in our shoes; so they’re going to walk in their shoes.”
Following a simple prompt given by Catholic Relief Services, diocesan family life director Elizabeth Reha, who holds a master’s degree in theater, created a script and plan for the simulation to be as real as possible.
“I hope they have a sense of the challenges of refugees from around the world, not just in Mexico,” Reha said.
There were 30 adults helping, some at various stations around the grounds of St. John Center, which included a refugee camp, shelters, a border crossing and prison, taking on the personalities of everyone from Spanish-speaking camp workers to a terrorist with a “ferocious” dog guarding the prison.
Eight teams of about 10 students each were staggered on their journey, each given different personas, including being pregnant, elderly and disabled.
Terrorists carrying bats watched intently, shouting, “there’s Americans everywhere!” and “I’ve got one!”
“It’s a lot more intense than I thought it’d be,” said “prisoner” Conner Kordsmeier, 17, from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Benton. “I was looking for my ‘wife.’ I have not found her, no idea where she is. It’s pretty scary if this was real. There’s actually people going through things more serious than this.”
Some had to walk with canes or dolls, along with supplies such as medicine, personal items and food, symbolized by painted boards.
“I’m 28 years old and eight months pregnant. I am looking for my sister. I was hoping to find her when I crossed the border,” 18-year-old Andrea Beyer said, her shirt stretched from the rubber ball under it. But the St. Michael in West Memphis parishioner wasn’t so lucky, as she stood in prison. “I can definitely say my eyes are opened. I had the mindset that if a country started its war, you just take a plane or train to the next country. I didn’t know they were kind of being hunted down.”
The border of Mexico was in sight, the Lady of Guadalupe statue standing as a beacon of hope.
Paul Nick, 17, from Christ the King Church in Little Rock was almost separated by border patrol from his “wife.”
“I was scared out of my mind to lose her,” Nick said. “It’s tough and scary. You never know if you’re going to make it to the next day.”
What waited after the border crossing was far from prosperity or safety. The teens were challenged to imagine living for three years in squalor at a refugee camp, being barked at by the commandant.
Matthew Dagastino, 18, from St. Michael Church in West Memphis, sat on the ground, quietly cuddling his baby.
“I had to carry her the entire journey to Mexico,” Dagastino said, adding he was also looking for his other “children.” “The whole traveling was pretty scary, going through the woods and hiding.”
After “three years” — and almost three hours into the outdoor simulation — they made the “14-hour” bus ride to their new home in Colima, Mexico, within the air-conditioned Morris Hall Chapel. Three Spanish-speaking seminarians — Jaime Nieto, Omar Galván and David Aguilar — were there to greet them with warm smiles, hugs and kind words.
At 11 p.m., the simulation ended as Reha debriefed the tired, hot and emotionally drained teens before they broke into groups to share their experiences.
“Until the day we die, until our last breath, we are called to be Christians, to be Christ to others,” Reha said.
Dagastino said the experience, though merely scratching the surface, put him in the footsteps of refugees.
“It makes you realize how hard it is. It’s not just get up and go,” he said. “They go through a lot of hardships.”
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