Reflection on Journey into Exile at Bishop’s University

31 March 2020|by Marc-André Veselovsky, SJ

On March 12, 2020, Norbert Piché, our Country Director, and I went to Bishop’s University in Lennoxville (just outside of Sherbrooke) to run our “Journey into Exile” simulation exercise. We had been invited by a group of Bishop’s U students who have been sponsoring refugees since 1992. Not only do they sponsor their refugees to come to Canada, but they give them bursaries to study at Bishop’s. The students can actually become friends with the refugees they are sponsoring since they inevitably go to the same school.

This student committee runs refugee-awareness events on a regular basis. We had about thirty students and professors for the event. We embarked on the exercise, inviting the participants to assume the refugee identity we provide for them, to make decisions as one would in exile, and to suffer the consequences.

After the exercise, we did a debriefing with all participants giving them the chance to share about their experience. Many shared their anger, sadness and frustration with the fact that so many people (25.9 million in 2018, to be exact) have to flee their home, are living in dire conditions, and are receiving disproportionately little help from people and governments.

In our group, a number of the participants had actually been refugees. They told us awful stories of suffering, of not knowing where to work, where to get food, who to trust. One of the refugees with us, Hasan, shared that, after fleeing Iraq to live in Lebanon, he had 11 different jobs. In each job, he wasn’t even sure if his employer would pay him. The employer would say, “We’ll take you on for a one-month training without pay. If we like your work, we will hire you.” Often, they wouldn’t hire him. One employer would even put a gun to his head to make sure that he would finish the day’s work. (Hasan’s story: Youtube)

Seeing the contrast to the reality of being a refugee and the reality of being a student in Canada was stark. Though such unjust suffering continues in many places in the world, the refugees who had been sponsored by the student group were now truly building a future of hope. I was awestruck by the generosity of this group, the honesty of the former refugees in their stories, and how our exercise was able to help trigger our conversations.

Let’s hope for more groups like this one at Bishop’s University. Groups that erase the stereotype of being a refugee and just meet the person fleeing violence where they are at. We should recognize the good that groups like this offer to the forcibly displaced and to Canadians. I have received so much just by listening for a few minutes to the stories of those people. How much more do you think these people offer to those students who are their friends at Bishop’s? To the future of Canada?

Thank you to the Refugee Sponsorship Committee for inviting us to meet you and share what we know about the hardship of being a refugee. Let’s work towards a future that helps to consider everyone as a person, and not a burden.