– Hundreds of young people taking part in the world’s biggest gathering of Scouts have taken time out this week from the camping, cooking, singing and field craft to learn what it’s like to be forced from your home and made to flee for your life.
About 1,000 of the 40,000 children and adults attending the 2011 World Scout Jamboree in Rinkaby, Sweden, got to experience the life of a refugee by talking part in “Passages,” a virtual reality exercise developed by the UN refugee agency.
It was a sobering and educational experience that taught them about the trauma suffered by millions of forcibly displaced people around the world, including, in some cases, their own countries. “At times I felt so scared that I had to remind myself that this was only a game,” said Nick Than from Malaysia.
Fifty people take part in each run of Passages. They are grouped in “families” and assigned roles. Bill, a middle-aged Canadian Scout leader, got to play a two-year-old boy. He said he had always thought of refugees as being adults, but “now I got to understand what such a fate does to the little ones.”
The players in Passages start off by experiencing what it is like for civilians caught in a military attack on their town or village. Blindfolded, the young Scouts taking part had to find their family members among the shouts and screams, the crackle of gunfire and explosions.
They then fled to a forest, hiding from their assailants. On their run to safety, the “family members” are robbed of their possessions, hear the sounds of a simulated rape and then pass the body of a virtual victim covered in blood.
Before reaching the safety of a UNHCR camp, they have to cross a national border and try to communicate with gun-toting frontier guards (played by UNHCR staff and Scout leaders) who do not speak their language. Refugees are legally defined as people who flee from their country to another, as opposed to internally displaced people who flee from their home to another part of their country.
Props provided by the Swedish army, including weapons and uniforms, add to the realism.
UNHCR has a long history of cooperation with the World Scout movement aimed
at sensitizing young people to the plight of refugees. This year’s Jamboree has been packed with activities, but UNHCR’s Passages has been one of the most popular. Youngsters queued for hours to take part and those who did participate will tell their friends and families about what they learned.
Several national Scouts movements said they would like to introduce Passages in their countries, while some of the adults asked if they could include it during corporate retreats and team-building exercises.
For Azra, a former refugee who now lives in Slovenia, this was much more than a game. “I played Passages with my best friends and now I can finally share with them what I had to go through. Now they will understand me better.”
The World Scout Jamboree is held every four years. At this year’s event, which opened on July 27 and ends on Monday, UNHCR also staffed an information booth were visitors could tour a refugee tent, taste high nutrition food and take part in a quiz. UNHCR bracelets, posters and lanyards for ID cards were handed out for free.
By Melita H. Sunjic and Jessica Päfs in Rinkaby, Sweden