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The Refugee Project

SPU students participating in a past Refugee Project. Photo from

“We heard a lot that America is the land of opportunity. So we choose this place. We’re hoping for a good future here,” says Reza Dehjordi, a refugee who arrived in Kent from Iran four months ago.

The American dream. That’s why refugees have always come to this country. Reza, and his wife and child, fled Iran because of religious and political oppression.

I spoke to Rezi through an interpreter, Wasi Sultani, who has also been in the United States for for months. He left Afghanistan and a job at the US Embassy.

“I received death threats from the Taliban. The threat was facing even to my family. I was also kidnapped but I managed to escape.”

These people are living among us, they’re passing us on the streets, they’re shopping beside us; but we don’t know their stories. We don’t know that Wasi speaks 5 languages. That he held a high status job in Afghanistan but can’t find a job in his field here.

“If I’m going to go to work in a restaurant and wash the dishes because of my children, I can force myself to do that,” Wasi says. “But that’s not a job that I want.”

This is why Seattle Pacific University has partnered with World Relief to create The Refugee Project. This Saturday, 20 students will pose as refugees for a three hour simulation so they can get an idea of what it’s like.

“I wore a burqa around the International District and that was very interesting,” says SPU student, Michelle Ramage. “I got a lot of stares and weird looks and people were turning the other way and stopping. It was very eye opening.”

But it’s more than just wearing a costume. During the exercise, the students encounter actors portraying UN officials, state department interviewers and they’re often speaking foreign languages.

“The actors are told to give them a really hard time,” says World Relief volunteer coordinator, Scott Ellis. “If they don’t remember where they were born and why they fled and how many people are in their family and what their grandfather’s name was, they might not be approved to move on to the next level. They might not get out of the refugee camp.”

Michelle described her experience acting as an Iraqi immigrant for a past Refugee Project.

“I felt very dehumanized, being pretty used to people warming up to me or treating me as a normal college student. It was very shocking and frustrating for someone to treat me as an object and not really understand that I was trying to do the best I could. It helped me have more empathy for the things that refugees go through. I had no idea about all of this injustice or this process.”

Michelle is also involved with a World Relief program called Cultural Companions. Students are matched up with families who recently immigrated, and they spend time getting to know each other, practicing English and learning about each other’s cultures. Michelle was paired up with Reza and his wife Negin. She says they share stories about their families, look at photographs and try each other’s cuisines.

“When we were not here we thought that American people, maybe, they are not friendly,” said Reza. “They may not like us, we might live separately from them. But when we came, we learned from Michelle that the American people are very friendly. They’re hospitable people. They respect our religion.”

“I think it’s really important just to expand our world view,” said Scott. “There are people coming here, fleeing really serious persecution. They’re coming to our borders seeking refuge. To know what they’ve gone through and to be able to empathize with them is a really powerful experience.”

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