For 20 minutes, Diana Bonisova spoke in rapid-fire Russian to a baffled group of Whitworth University students.
She wrote Cyrillic letters on a white board, repeating each syllable as the students struggled to pronounce them, then explained how to count to six while demonstrating how the addition of an extra letter changes the pronunciation of a word.
Nobody in the group could keep up. They walked out of the room feeling confused and stupid, they said.
And that was the point.
Bonisova is a Russian refugee who resettled in Spokane in 2005. She now works at World Relief and was part of a teaching simulation at Whitworth and Eastern Washington University to help students learn what the refugee application and admission process is like.
“I can’t imagine actually trying to learn a language like that,” said Emily Derby, one of the participants.
Bonisova’s Russian lesson for students was modeled after the English immersion classes she received when she first arrived, where no one spoke Russian and she was left to figure things out on her own.
“That’s how I felt when I came,” she said. “I was crying in the bathroom.”
Whitworth students Tommie McPhetridge, Thais Pedro, Melanie Hynden and Derby, along with professor Anne Wilcox, went through the simulation Thursday as members of the Moon family. The Moons are a real Burmese family of five who resettled in Spokane after living in Thai refugee camps for years, and are members of the Karen ethnic group, a persecuted minority.
The group had 20 minutes to read a binder of information about the family and dress in traditional Karen attire before working through four stations. They were briefed on their background, as well as their levels of education and English knowledge, which ranged from little to none.
The first, and perhaps most difficult, was a medical screening. The family’s 11-year-old daughter, July Moon, played by Hynden, was suffering from chills, fever and vomiting. After questioning her, the medical worker determined she had malaria.
The family was given a choice: give up 7 of your 10 food rations for the month to get the girl treatment, which would require being isolated for two to four weeks away from the family, or wait it out and see if she gets better.
“This could also delay your resettlement,” the medical worker, played by World Relief volunteer Koryn Chatriand, warned them.
Wilcox, who was playing the group’s mother, conferred with her family members. They wanted to buy the medicine, but changed their minds after learning their daughter would be separated.
“I really resonated with having to leave a child. To have to choose that and she’s only 11,” Wilcox said after the simulation.
After making the choice, they were given a group of cards and had to pick one. The verdict? Medical denial for travel.
World Relief has been running simulations like this for 15 years, with the hope of showing people who are likely to work or interact with refugees what they go through in camps before they are approved for resettlement.
Dick Mandeville, who organizes the simulations for World Relief, said only about one-third of 1 percent of the 20 million refugees in the world are ever resettled. The average stay in a refugee camp for a family hoping to get a plane ticket to the U.S. or Europe is about 17 to 19 years.
The EWU students are training to teach English language learners, while the Whirworth students are education majors taking a class on intercultural education.
The course is taught during the university’s three-week-long January term, and many students travel to other countries to learn about teaching across language and cultural barriers.
The students who stay in town usually immerse themselves in local schools and work directly with kids. But because Spokane Public Schools doesn’t come back from winter break until Jan. 8, Wilcox was looking for something for her students to do this week.
At the food and shelter station, the Moon family handed over their rations and received two small Ziploc bags of rice to last their five family members for a month.
“I can’t imagine how much food we would have gotten if we’d given up our rations,” said Hynden.
They then had to build a shelter for themselves using poles and a tarp.
That’s more than Albert Htoo’s family got when he was living in a refugee camp in Thailand.
Htoo, who supervised the food and shelter station, explained to the group that in the camp he was born in, people had to go into the forest to find their own branches and poles to make homes. But they were cautioned not to go too far into the forest.
“When you search for it, because it’s a civil war, you’ve got those land mines,” he explained. The camp he was born in burned down, so his family moved to Thailand’s largest refugee camp. When he was 14, they finally got approval to come to the U.S., he said.
After completing each station, including one-on-one refugee interviews, the students gathered to debrief. Asked to describe their experience in one word, the responses were fairly similar. Stressful. Overwhelming. Confused. Intense.
Knowing the loopholes families may have to jump through to get basic food and medical care in refugee camps, one student said she’d be more likely to understand if a student tried to bend the rules or talk their way into something they weren’t supposed to have. Others said it showed the importance of using clear visual aids when communicating across language barriers, not just writing the alphabet on the board.
Wilcox said she hoped to work the simulation into the curriculum in future years. It’s something Whitworth in the past has done only with master’s students pursuing careers in school administration.
For her, the biggest takeaway was how the choices refugees face are rarely between a good and a bad option.
“We’re so used to having good options. And viable options. And there weren’t options that worked,” Wilcox said.
This story has been updated to include the Eastern Washington University students who participated in the simulation.