RHSA Refugee Program Expands Student Perspective

Students learned more about refugee experuences from the Mohawk Valley Resource Cneter for Refugees at the final part of the event held on Feb. 21 at the Humanitites Building.

In order to delve deeper into the grueling circumstances of a refugee, the Residence Hall Student Association (RHSA) hosted “Return to Sender: Journey of a Refugee” on Feb. 21 in the Humanities building within classrooms. This interactive program placed participants into experiences of a refugee in an effort to learn more about the challenges they face. With each room’s task also came more insight, empathy and compassion into the life of a refugee or immigrant. 

The four-part program began with “Family Movie Night” in a room filled with household and personal items. A few minutes into the movie, participants were told they had 15 seconds to grab whatever they could. Some grabbed passports, others grabbed clothes, but they all shared the same goal in taking whatever they needed to survive. 

One simulation consisted of a privilege exercise which made attendants throw paper balls into a can depending on the given task. Each participant was given a certain disability that made their chances of completing the task at hand more difficult. With their less dominant hand, their eyes closed, or facing backwards, participants had to throw paper into the garbage stationed in the center of the room in order to embody the disadvantages and lack of privilege refugees face. 

Another one of the adversities facing refugees are language barriers.

As participants entered another room, RHSA members began giving directions in Spanish, which caused confusion for many. Students had to compete to build the tallest tower using three pieces of paper, tape and scissors with all directions and announcements made in Spanish. This highlighted how a refugee’s entry into a different country will require the lengthy and overwhelming process of learning a new language.

Towards the end of the program, there was a reflective informational discussion, where attendees expressed just how frazzled, incompetent, and frustrated they felt during the simulations, and how that harbored feelings of understanding. 

 “The parts of the program that were real life situations were very eye-opening and stressful,” said second-year psychology major Noah Diamond. “It made me really grateful for what I have.” 

The program is new to New Paltz, but “Return to “Sender: Journey of a Refugee” originated at the University of California at San Jose and won the National Award for Diversity Programming. 

Third-year political science and psychology major and President of the RHSA, Elee Wolf-Sonkin came across the program while scrolling through programs a part of the National Affiliations of College and University Residence Halls, and RHSA collectively decided to bring the event here as well. 

“We like this program in particular because we think not only having the conversation about these issues is important, but exposing people to these issues in this way helps to make them hyper aware of what it means to be a refugee,” Wolf-Sonkin said. “This way they are able to have a prepared discussion and really open their minds.” 

As a student, you can help. 

If you’d like to learn more about how you can help refugees and immigrants the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees is a great place to start. Their programs prioritize creating an inclusive community and providing services for all vulnerable populations.