"Refugee exodus" inside a college campus

News Stories, 22 June 2005

© UNHCR/M.Echandi
Students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico overcome obstacles as "refugees" on World Refugee Day.

MEXICO CITY, June 22 (UNHCR) One moment they were strolling through the campus, the next moment they were refugees. For half an hour, more than 100 Mexican students got a taste of what it was like to flee conflict, and what they first thought would be a game became in their own words the experience of a lifetime.

The students were taking part in a simulated mass exodus known as "Travesías" (Journeys) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the country's oldest university, to mark World Refugee Day on Monday.

The exercise started with a "bombing" by water-filled balloons, followed by the group's escape. Some of them were "injured": one girl had a bandaged arm, another guy needed to have his leg dressed. This was not an easy journey. Some "died" along the way, others had no documentation and risked being deported once they got to the checkpoint. The road was also dangerous, with landmines everywhere. And they had to cross a river to reach their safe haven.

"This is an opportunity for the students to interact with each other, working together for a common purpose: to save their lives at the end of the journey," said Demetrio Valdez, the university's recreation coordinator.

After the journey, they all met inside a tent similar to real shelters for refugees to share their thoughts in a discussion facilitated by UNHCR's coordinator for the "Education for Peace" programme. The simulation was first conducted under the same programme during the International Scout Meeting in Mexico City in 2000.

There was anxiety, fear and desperation, the UNAM students all agreed. "I had no hand, and he was limping on one foot. I was really scared. I didn't know when I was going to die," said a participant named Laura.

"I really think this was a significant experience," said another girl. "I used to think that a refugee was only someone who was chased because of his or her political ideas. Now I know there are other reasons for persecution."

Raising awareness of refugee issues was the main aim of this year's World Refugee Day activities at UNAM, which was commemorating the event for the second year. In addition to the simulation, this year's programme also featured musical and theatrical performances, a photographic exhibition, roundtable discussions and the sale of traditional food and crafts from the refugees' countries of origin.

Familiar Central American and Colombian flavours wafted through the air, while exotic patterns and colours from Africa and Asia dotted the campus. Some Sierra Leoneans brought fabrics, while a Pakistani refugee hung cotton dresses ideal for the sunny climate.

Other former refugees took World Refugee Day as an opportunity to catch up with old friends. "I always like to attend the celebration of World Refugee Day," said an elderly refugee woman.

© UNHCR/M.Echandi
Discussing lessons learnt from the simulated mass exodus.

At the end of the day, the results were positive. "One of the main goals of this university is for the students to have an integrated education, so that they become aware of the different contexts and realities of their world and not only of their immediate surroundings," said David Vázquez of UNAM's Artistic and Cultural Education Direction. "This celebration is aimed at enriching their academic education through parallel activities."

He added, "We are already looking forward to coordinating next year's commemoration of World Refugee Day."

By Mariana Echandi
UNHCR Mexico