Iowa Wesleyan University's event was organized to help local groups aiding local immigrants.

MOUNT PLEASANT — As about 50 people packed into the Social Hall at Iowa Wesleyan University Sunday afternoon, they took on completely new personas— new names, ages, family roles, beliefs and nationalities.

It was part of the Mount Pleasant university’s refugee simulation program, a structured activity meant to help people understand the process refugees go through to seek safety in a new country.

For Jorge Sierra, the afternoon was about empathy.

“We need to be grateful that we have food on our table and education,” said Sierra, an organizer of the refugee simulation. “Other people are just escaping war. They don’t have anything.”

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First, the participants turned off their cell phones, a luxury the organizers said many refugees go without.

Next, participants were assigned to random family groups, each with its own backstory. The families mingled around the room, and once sufficiently separated from each other, participants were told their town had been bombed.

“Heavy smoke fills the street where your family happens to be and people are screaming and running in every direction,” read the activities narration. “Your family gets separated. It’s impossible to see into the dense smoke that is stinging your throat and your eyes.”

The participants were told to put blindfolds over their eyes to simulate the blinding smoke and then find the other members of their family group. Participants said they felt disoriented and confused.

Then, each family group was given a card outlining a crisis that left at least one member injured. Some participants had to wrap their arms up in a sling, while some carried their fellow family members with imaginary broken legs.

After seeking shelter at night, represented by a small area of the room, the participants were given paperwork to fill out before they could approach the border of the country they wanted to cross into. The paperwork was written in another language, and despite an inability to translate the foreign looking words, the simulation required participants to fill out the sheet before crossing the border.

Tin cans hung on strings in a doorway symbolized the border, and anyone who hit a tin can while crawling underneath or carrying a family member was rejected and sent to the back of the line.

In fact, participants playing the roles of border patrol agents sent the mock refugees back to the start for all kinds of little problems, many of them unexplained. Bryn Woods and BJ Wagy, participating in the same family group, said they were surprised by how many times they were sent to the start of the simulation. They tried to imagine the frustration they felt in that two-hour period over the course of several years and many more hardships.

Family groups were given many roadblocks, such as losing important papers during their imagined journey or a lack of basic supplies.

To conclude the activity, participants were asked to reflect and come up with some words to describe how their mock refugee families felt now that they were across the border in safe camps. The vocabulary used ranged from relieved and determined to victimized and exhausted.

Lynn Ellsworth, a member of Iowa WINS, or “Welcomes Its Immigrant Neighbors,” said the simulation allowed community members to take a closer look at the lives of those around them.

“It does give you a sense of what it might be like,” said Ellsworth. “It gives you more empathy for other people that are in really difficult situations.”

The event supported both Iowa WINS, a group stemming from the First Presbyterian Church, and Iowa Justice For Our Neighbors, a United Methodist Immigration Ministry providing affordable legal services for low-income immigrants.

And Sierra hopes those moved by the simulation will take the time to reach out and help those kind of organizations.

“We should remind people that refugees have suffered so much, and we need to help them,” said Sierra. “We need to embrace all our values and come together and help them.”