Breaking down borders: through a refugee’s eyes

Lilah Thompson created a local refugee simulation experience.

Lilah Thompson has seen the struggles of refugees firsthand.

Thompson, a second-year law and public policy student at the Beasley School of Law, worked with a resettlement agency during and after her undergraduate years in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“I worked specifically with a refugee family doing resettlement work and sort of accompanied them through every stage of the process,” Thompson said. “I thought to myself [about] how I would never need to know what it’s like to get a social security card or go to the grocery store for the first time.”

Many refugee adults had a difficult time finding employment and struggled to learn English more than their children, who were often able to pick it up faster, she said. She began speaking to more refugees about their individual experiences and struggles.

“One of the guys I was working with was a doctor back in Iraq,” Thompson said. “When he came here, his degree didn’t transfer and he was working in a chicken farm. It just felt so degrading to him.”

Witnessing the  of these refugees challenges firsthand is what inspired her to become the driving force behind “Between Borders: A Refugee Simulation Experience.”

Between Borders is an upcoming workshop aimed at providing a better understanding of the refugee experience. Each participant will be given an identity based on the story of a real-life refugee and will spend a few hours in their shoes as they make their way through each stage of the refugee process.

“It’s timely, and it’s also very innovative,” said Nancy Knauer, a law professor and the director of Temple’s Law & Public Policy Program, which is sponsoring the event. “The refugee simulation enables individuals to have an immersive experience where they can see what it feels like and what refugees go through. With all the talk in the news about refugees, I thought this was a very important project and one that we are proud to be involved with.”

In the simulation, participants will learn on what grounds they are being persecuted and then will flee to a refugee camp. Two groups of people will be represented in the simulation: Syrians and Afghans fleeing to the Zaatari camp in Jordan, and Liberians fleeing to the Gbinta camp in Ivory Coast.

Between Borders will feature refugees as guest speakers to share their stories. The Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change will also perform at the end of the simulation.

One of the guest speakers will be Zaye Tete, a Liberian refugee and member of the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change. After war broke out in 1990, she fled her home and spent time in two refugee camps before relocating to the United States with her husband in 2004.

“It’s important for other people to listen to our experiences because there are some people in this country who have not experienced war or know what war is about,” Tete said. “I feel happy to share my story with them.”

Once placed in the camps, participants will undergo the extensive resettlement process. Eventually, they will be resettled in the United States and have the opportunity to receive American citizenship.

The purpose of Between Borders is to increase awareness of the hardships refugees face, like persecution, living in refugee camps for indefinite periods of time and adapting to unfamiliar environments.

“I think a lot of what is out there in the media is just not very well-informed by the facts,” said Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a professor of law, as well as Thompson’s project advisor and co-presenter for Between Borders. “I think the more people we have out there who are well-informed and understand the realities, the better.”

Between Borders will be held at the National Constitution Center at 525 Arch St. on March 25 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Participants can register online until March 22 and must pay a fee of $28 or $12 for students.

Thompson hopes the participants leave with a greater understanding of the refugee experience.

“I hope that they are able to take that awareness and education they’ve gained about the process to their own communities and share it,” she said.

Brooke Williams can be reached at

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