Learning the plight of the refugee

Jeff Hanger photo

Jeff Hanger photo

By Janice Biehn

People were on edge as they passed the pair of soldiers flanking the military road block. The soldiers were searching for someone named Jeff. A rifle, a Billy can and helmets lay scattered at the foot of a camouflage tent.

The mis-en-scène made for a bracing welcome for people arriving at St. Mary’s Anglican in Ponoka, Alta. They had gathered for an educational evening titled “Come Hungry, Leave Inspired”, designed to inform about the plight of refugees and displaced people, as well as raise awareness and funds for The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund.

People soon found their seats (it was an air rifle in fact, and the soldiers were in costume) and remarkable, played along, says event organized and PWRDF Parish Representative Jeff Hanger. “They recognized what was happening but diffused the situation.” Hanger had written scripts for the “soldiers” and they more or less followed them.

First on the menu, Hanger provided an overview of PWRDF’s work. Then a screening of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ video “What They Took With Them” which emphasizes the strain and urgency of life on the move. Then, a video of a Kaitlyn Davies acting out a scene as a young woman fleeing South Sudan into Uganda. All of these set the scene for the struggle and panic which is the life of a refugee.

After the first course, participants watched another video of a woman (a friend of Hanger’s named Billy Mulholland), portraying a fictitious Syrian mother who lost her son while crossing the sea to Greece. She also told the story of her own grandparents’ journey.

After the main course, Hanger returned to the lectern. He explained that no one in attendance really knew what it was like to be in a refugee camp and that these presentations were designed to help everyone imagine themselves in such a harrowing situation. He was clear to note that the video presentations and soldiers’ scripts were written for the evening.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, St. Mary’s Rector, the Reverend Donna Willer, went into character as a woman who had spent 30 years in a refugee camp in Thailand and a conversation between her and Hanger ensued. “It was an absolutely amazing experience,” says Hanger. “She stayed in character while I asked her about the Thai soldiers, life on the camp and the PWRDF support of DARE (Drug and Alcohol Recovery Network). She looked at me and said ‘that was you guys?’ and I responded that it was.” Hanger says the whole audience was impressed with the incumbent’s acting chops. “People were asking her questions. Some were doing mental calculations to see if her story could be true. This was a real game changer for the event. She played it so believably!”

After dessert, two members of the St. Mary’s congregation – Nathan, a firefighter, and Heather Labrie, whose son was a junior fire fighter during the Slave Lake fire — talked about the challenges of returning home, especially when home has been destroyed. Statistics show that 83% of refugees are in developing countries, and the majority want to go back home.

Hanger had promoted the event with the local chapter of Central Alberta Refugee Effort, which works extensively with refugees in Canada. Asad, a volunteer with CARE, told his true story about escaping the Taliban.

Guests were invited to then bid at a silent auction, which helped the event raise more than $1,000.

The goal of the evening was to get the participants engaged in the subject of refugees, says Hanger. “The activities were aimed at sparking discussion and Rev. Donna played an awesome role as a refugee. Time was available for participant input, especially Nathan and Heather on the subject of returning home. Also, the participants had a role to play in keeping Jeff away from the soldiers. I hope that they learned that the subject of refugee is so much deeper than looking at their religion.”