The Refugee Run and “White Helmets:” The Deep Impact of Experiential Learning


It is a truism that “experience is the best teacher,” and so it is with Humanities I in Action, our cornerstone social conscience course at HKIS, that the second most powerful lesson in the curriculum (after the Foshan orphanage trip*) is a simulation developed by the Hong Kong NGO Crossroads Foundation called the “Refugee Run” in which students enter into the life of one of the 65 million refugees in our world today. Participants in the 90-minute simulation cross a border under the threat of rebel attack and then live in a refugee camp for several “days.” Led by HKIS alum David Begbie, the Refugee Run involves approximately 10 actors from Crossroads who play the various roles of rebels, refugee camp officials, guards, exploiters, teachers, and nurses. The experience leaves a deep impact on students, one that they recall throughout their high school career.

This year I followed up the simulation with the Academy Award-winning short documentary called “White Helmets” on war-torn Syria. This combination of a powerful simulation and a dramatic documentary created one of the most memorable learning experiences of the year.

Simulation Preparation 

Our actual preparation for Refugee Run was fairly minimal this year. In November Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 6.04.59 PM.pngstudents read a genocide memoir, many of which involve refugee stories. In addition, this year’s keynote speaker for our Service Summit in January was Jordan Hattar, a young humanitarian who shared simple, powerful stories of his experience in refugee camps in South Sudan and Jordan. His example inspired 9 of my 20 students to choose the issue of refugees as the focus of their self-directed semester-long, community-based Elixir Project.

The day before the simulation, I showed a touching TED talk about refugees by Luma Image result for luma mufleh ted talkMufleh, a daughter of refugees and now educator in the U.S. who teaches refugees. I then assigned students to groups of 5, giving each group a different country, and asked them to create a family story. Each person needed to adopt an identity and make a fake passport to be used as papers for the Run. Girls were told that they needed to wear a headscarf.

They were also given the following goals for their refugee experience.

(if you make it across the border into the refugee camp)

  1. Stay together.
  2. Protect each other from soldiers and other families.
  3. Move as quickly as you can, while staying safe.
  4. Get bread and water every day.
  5. Get medical attention for someone in your family.
  6. Get any children in your family into school.
  7. Keep your valuables and precious items.

While certainly a whole unit could be built around this simulation, this background was  sufficient to prepare them for a powerful experience.

The Refugee Run Experience

On the day of the Refugee Run our 90 students were bused out to Crossroads. About 15 minutes from their site we began the simulation. Playing the role of a handler, I told them to be silent, curtly threatening them that if they did not cooperate, their papers would be taken. Walking up and down the bus, I interrogated some students about their name or hometown on their passport, or questioned why some girls’ passport pictures had no headscarves. I confiscated several passports or demanded bribes.

Pulling into Crossroads, we walked up the hill and entered into a room which begins the formal simulation. In a few minutes, pandemonium broke out (no more spoilers given) and little conscious attention could be given to the goals beyond the most fundamental aim of surviving. During the simulation students “experience” many aspects of refugee life:

  • Fleeing for safetyScreen Shot 2018-03-18 at 9.35.04 PM.png
  • Theft
  • Verbal intimidation
  • Patriarchy (girls need to wear headscarves)
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Threat of violence
  • Fear of night
  • Powerlessness
  • Lawlessness
  • Torture

While the fear and uncertainty are the IMG_20180303_102220323.jpgdominant impression, students also experience several positive aspects of refugee life:

  • Language class at a school
  • Rudimentary medical care
  • Basic food and housing

When the simulation ends, David debriefs the experience with the students. What they certainly find most memorable is the shock and terror of the initial confrontation with rebel forces which begins the simulation. Most memorably, David emphasizes that refugees who have done this simulation say that the escape and camp conditions are only about 14% of what it’s actually like to be a refugee.

Student Response to the Refugee Run

Before Monday’s class, I ask students to share their experience during the simulation. Here are a number of responses to the homework questions:

  1. What was the most frightening or insightful moment for you doing the Refugee Run?

Ayaan: During the refugee run I was Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 9.40.19 PM.pngshouted at yelled at and abused. In this refugee simulation I could have been attacked or killed anytime during the night. I had to stay aware and awake. I was accused of something I never did and got in trouble.” (Ayaan is pictured to the right.)

Blythe: The most frightening moment for me was when we were all lined up at night because someone stole a gun. The combination of the harsh questioning and the clicking of the guards’ guns added to the fear, but I think the most frightening part of that moment was the fact that everyone was exposed as individuals in the line, and I wasn’t allowed to hide in the middle of the crowd to avoid trouble.”

  1. What part of a refugee’s experience do you now have greater empathy for?Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 10.00.06 PM.png

Ayaan: “Before the simulation, I knew this was a serious issue but I did not realize the reality for these displaced people. They had absolutely no power and can be accused and killed because of something they never did.”

Blythe: “It really sickened me to think of all of the insults and negativity the refugees have to endure after moving into a new country and building a new life. They’ve had a lot more struggles and witnessed so many more tragedies than the people harassing them, and it is heartbreaking to know that even though they went through all of their traumas to move to a safer, more welcoming place, they are still being bullied and stripped of their rights.”Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 9.42.38 PM.png

  1. What was the most memorable or most inspirational aspect of David’s debrief for you?

Ayaan: “The fact that what I thought was extremely frightening of what lasted of 30 minutes is just a small percentage of what refugees must experience. The fact that it was only 14% and the average time someone is a refugee is 25 years. This shocks me.” (Ayaan is interrogated again.)

Blythe: “The simulation felt so realistic and I felt real terror and a desperation to get out of the camp, so it really shocked me to hear that that experience was only 14% of what refugees actually experience. If all of us, privileged students with little to no real trauma presented to us in the past were so terrified and shaken just by a 40-minute simulation, I can’t fathom being able to survive, or even keep my sanity, as an actual refugee living at 100% for a very long and undetermined amount of time.”

The simulation’s most important element is the raw fear that some students experience, which enables them to empathize with the plight of refugees.

Student Response to “White Helmets”

On Monday, the first day back to school after Saturday’s Refugee Run, I decided to use for the first time the 40-minute documentary “The White Helmets,” an extremely powerful film which depicts a volunteer group in Syria which rescues people from airstrikes across Syria. From the very beginning of a film where a cameraman experiences a second bombing of a previously destroyed building, the film contrasts harrowing human suffering with the calm purposefulness of the men in the white helmets.

Image result for the white helmets documentary

Sensing the raw power of the film after Saturday’s simulation, I asked the students to write an email to me or to someone else about what they experienced between the simulation and the film.

Andrew: The documentary “The White Helmets” was one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. It documents how over 1200 Syrians work to save people from under the rubble everyday. One hundred and thirty white helmets have died since 2013 but they have saved over 58,000 people from bombs.

It was powerful to me because I have never actually seen a bomb falling on a building. When it was falling, there was nothing anyone could do about it. You wouldn’t be able to stop the bomb from falling, but at the same time you don’t even know what it will hit. All you do is pray it does not hit you. That hit me very hard.  

It gave me that sense of guilt that has been discussed in class, similar to how we described our Foshan experience. Not only that, but it gave me a different sense of guilt. I thought: what are you doing to fight this? What am I doing sitting here in this nice school in this nice classroom while this is happening all over the world. Not only bombs, but so many preventable deaths.  

When they pulled the ‘miracle baby’ out of the rubble, I honestly nearly cried. I felt this feeling because a child so young and so innocent was buried in rubble from the very start of its life. It made me think about all the other babies and children who weren’t so lucky as to be saved. 

I felt admiration for the white helmets. When they were being interviewed, all of them said that this was their obligation to save lives. It was a powerful moment. These men are so dedicated to saving life that they are willing to give up their saves to save those of others. 

I feel fortunate and privileged. I feel that I should be doing something to help the world.”

Annika: “This weekend has been such a powerful experience. Doing the Refugee Run has really opened up my eyes to what the world is really like and what refugees have to experience every single day. The rape, the torture and the amounts of deaths every day is horrendous, but what’s worse is that these people escaped from a hell but ended up escaping to an even worse place. Once we finished our refugee simulation, David informed us that the pain and emotions we felt were only 14% of what normal refugees (some of which are younger than the age of 5) have to go through. 

Watching the documentary on the White Helmets and watching them risk their lives and their family lives for the sake of rescuing others completely blew my mind. Seeing people step forward and make a difference really inspired me to do something because I didn’t only hear and see the pain of the refugees and white helmet members but for once I could actually feel the pain coming from the documentary which really shocked me. 

We need to help the refugees the whole way through. We can’t just help them during the war and look after them when they are hurt, but we need to stick with them from start to finish, we need to sponsor them after the war so they can build up their houses, we need to send them food, send them clothes and just check up on them. We need to look after them for a long time because I learned that the war is only ever over when the people feel like they are going back to their normal lives and for some people, they never really feel normal again.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 9.55.32 PM.png

Clara: “This weekend has enlightened me on the refugee crisis. Not long ago, I was aware of the war in Syria, I knew of the crisis, but I couldn’t ‘put a face’ to the problem. Everything I heard on the news seemed so superficial to me; “Bombing in Aleppo, 9 killed, 80 injured”, almost like a regular heading that would appear in a newspaper. 

In the past 72 hours, I have learned so much about this crisis that it has made me want to take action. I kind of judge the people who have known this much about the Syrian refugee crisis all along, and never taken any action. First off, I think that most people think of refugees the wrong way. After telling my dad about the refugee run and David’s talk, he told me about some of the misconceptions on refugees; how refugees are viewed by the rest of the world. He said that in Western Europe, some actually thought refugees were lucky, because they had access to free housing, no taxes to pay, and, in France at least, kids have access to education and hospitalization free of charge. This made me furious, because never would I have thought that people could be so ignorant on such a tragic issue. Saying that refugees were lucky and that some would rather seek asylum in another country, to me, that was kind of like saying that the Aboriginal children were lucky to be taken from their family because then they came out ‘educated’. 

The film “White Helmets” has given me Image result for the white helmetshope. I didn’t know about this organization, and I feel like with proper funding it could make even more of an impact in Syria. What struck me the most is the fact that the white helmets are formed by Syrian civilians who just want to help save people. Most have come to feel that it is their duty to help save others.

Overall, both of these experiences have made me want to get involved with refugees, either by sponsoring kids or sending supplies over to refugee camps. I now appreciate even more the value of my freedom and realize how lucky I am to be living the life I live.”

Taira: “The most powerful aspect of the film is the importance of family. Many of the White Image result for the white helmetsHelmets members described experiences where they treat the person they’re rescuing as part of their family. To my surprise, when they were rescuing the “Miracle Baby” I had a similar response and imagined my little brother in the place of that child. The relief that washed over me when they finally pulled him out was incredible. I can’t help but feel guilty that it’s not my little brother under the ruble, and that I don’t have to take cover whenever I hear an airplane flying overhead. Even though I am doing an entire Elixir Project dedicated to helping the refugees, it still doesn’t feel like enough. I think that I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I helped every refugee, which I know is impossible. The film turned the numbers I wrote about in my FRP into individual people, deepening my understanding of the intensity of the situation. I’m also amazed by the courage and bravery of the White Helmets. I find it incredible that they used to be normal people with normal jobs. Overall, this film was very powerful and deeply impacted my understanding of the Syrian Crisis.” (Taira is in the baseball cap below.)

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 9.56.36 PM.png

Only a small handful of events – the Foshan trip and the movie “Shooting Dogs” come to SCoutcomesmind – provide a similar depth and intensity that can be found in comments such as these. My research on social conscience found that an effective lesson incorporated three elements: awareness of a social issue, emotional engagement, and action steps. All three dimensions are on full display in these comments, culminating in their clearly expressed desire to do something about the situation.


The most effective way to “pop the bubble” of privilege and apathy, according to students, is to give them first-hand experiences involving the suffering of others. Thus, taking a trip to work with refugees would be the best possible learning experience. However, given the impracticality of leading trips to refugee camps, how can teachers engage students with the refugee issue on an emotional level? The combination of Crossroad’s Refugee Run simulation with the documentary “White Helmets” left a deep impression upon students that is rarely achieved in a classroom setting. I hope that Hong Kong educators will avail themselves of this powerful opportunity to inform students about the refugee crisis through Crossroads’ Refugee Run experience. For those beyond Hong Kong, the linking of a high quality simulation to a dramatic issue-based film has the potential to deeply impact students.

Image result for crossroads hong kong

*The most powerful experience of the year for most students is our 4-day trip to the Foshan Orphanage, which we usually occurs in November.

The South China Morning Post wrote an article about the Refugee Run in October, 2015 involving our students.


Addendum: My Refugee Run Experience (2008)

“14%,” explained David, “that’s how this simulation compares to the real life of a refugee.

Moments before I had walked past hastily scrawled letters spelling out, “Checkpoint,” handed my Syrian passport to a menacing guard, made my way into a large holding pen with scores of others bent double, nervously scribbling our names on indecipherable forms, and finally crawled to a wall for a moment’s breath, when in front of me appeared an African militia man pointing a machine gun at my mid-section. Two thoughts fired nearly simultaneously within. First, the explosions, yelling, confusion, and questioning had taken its toll in a short time, and anger flared at this intruder. “I have rights, man!” I wanted to yell. But this first momentary impulse was checked by the gravity of the situation: he had a lethal weapon and I had nothing. At the end of this gun was a low-paid soldier who used the one mechanism available to him extort some kind of living for himself. With the gun bearing down diagonally towards me, I realized that I was not only totally powerless, but agonizingly alone. If this man, regardless of his reasoning, pulled the trigger, my life – which has been my preoccupation for 43 years – would be snuffed out as easily as a barely lit candle. Poof. Gone. My parents, my wife, my children would never know of this moment; they would only grieve over some unfathomable event for the rest of their lives: did I die in struggle or in peace, a perpetrator or a victim, a villain or a hero. All lost in the pull of a trigger, in the cessation of a heartbeat. Powerlessness, fear, loneliness, despair, and heartbreak, extending across lifetimes, would richochet far from this dark cell of a camp. All gone. These thoughts flashed across my mind, anger yielding to utter impotence. Our eyes met. He spoke, “Get up,” he motioned with his gun, “move . . . now!” I scrambled to my feet, crossed into the next room and darted for the security of a makeshift tent.

“That’s what the refugees who have worked with us on this simulation say,” David repeated. “You only experience 14% of what they do.”



About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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1 Response to The Refugee Run and “White Helmets:” The Deep Impact of Experiential Learning

  1. Pingback: “Dream Dreams that are Larger than Life:” An Opening Word to the First Humanities II in Action Classes | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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