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Refuge: A Didactic Story

Last week my sister asked me to write a story to use at her work. She works for an NGO called the Mennonite Central Committee, which works at international development and is quite respected.

The program she’s working in now is really very interesting. It’s called the In Exile, For a While Refugee Simulation Program.

They take young people out on refugee experience simulations, complete with exploding landmines, starvation diets, nasty border guards, and long forced marches in awful weather, to give them a better idea of how to imagine a refugee’s experience: take this one awful day and imagine years of this. From the responses she’s gotten, it seems a powerful tool for building awareness, which is good in my books.

Anyway, I wrote the story a few days ago, and sent it off. My sister wrote to me today and said that she and an expert on refugees loved it and that they “are going to use it in a curriculum to teach youth in Canada (Manitoba specifically) about refugees.”

Now, I am not a propagandist at heart, but I do think that if it serves a good cause, it’s not a bad thing to write something that is didactic: that is to say, purposefully shocking or emotionally manipulative. (After all, we’re manipulated emotionally into being comfortable enough to be complacently ignorant of the world, too…) So anyway, here’s the final draft of the story.


Everything hurts and I am dizzy and I don’t understand the man. I know he’s asking my big sister something important but I don’t even know what language he’s speaking in. He points to a sign but I can’t read it. It’s writing, and I even recognize the letters, but the words don’t make sense.

Everything hurts. My belly is bigger today than it was yesterday, and I think it might mean something but I don’t want to tell anyone. The kids who get big like this get carried, but then they also usually die. That’s how my baby sister died last week. It hurts a lot but I don’t want anyone to know about it.

The man is saying something bad to my sister. I think she understands him, or at least she is answering him, in our language, as if she understands him; but I still don’t know what they are talking about. I haven’t understood anything that’s happened since we left the city. Nothing except the hot sun, the dirty water we’ve been drinking, the guns going off all the time. I can hear bombs at night, when other people sleep and I lie there trying to do like them.

Elder sister is going away. Being taken away. I don’t know where. I try to follow her, but someone hits me in the face. Hard.

The whole world is quiet for a little while.

When I wake up it smells horrible, like I am inside a toilet. It must be a hospital, I think, before I open my eyes.

I’m right. There are people all around me. They are sick, dying. Their bellies are big, bigger than mine, bigger than my sister’s was. There are a few of people with mosquito netting over them, and one man across the tent is shaking and making awful sounds. He’s going to die soon. I know because I’ve seen it before. I slap a fly that’s crawling on my face, and sit up. The fly is dead, right there on my fingertips. People die just like that, like flies. And I know that if I stay in the hospital I will die too.

There’s a doctor here. A white woman. I think maybe American. She is blonde and beautiful and I think she looks like God. Maybe she can give me medicine. She is trying to help the shaking man, but everyone knows what he is going to do. He is going to die.

I am lucky. The doctor sees me awake, talks to me. Not in English, I don’t speak English. So she tries my language, and I cannot believe she can speak it. She must really be God. She gives me medicine and tells me always to boil my water before I drink it. She gives me a tiny packet of dry corn meal and says I only need to mix it with water to eat it.

It is so much food, I think it could fill the palm of my whole hand. I haven’t eaten this much in one day since last week. I want to give some to my sister. I say this, and she looks around carefully and gives me another packet for her.

And I can’t stop crying and thanking her. I can’t even talk, because I am crying so hard. She puts her hand on my shoulder and rubs softly. So kind. It makes me cry more. I can hear bombs exploding somewhere. But I am not scared anymore.

She really is God. I believe it now.

Except the shaking man died, while she was giving me that medicine. I saw that happen, and the doctor didn’t. Maybe that is how the world went crazy, because God got too busy?

It’s better not to try understand, I think. Eating is more important.

My sister and I get some water from one of the Red Cross people, and boil it a long time. It hurts to see it boiling because it means it will be less water. But the doctor said always boil the water. When we mix the water and the meal, it softens and turns into a paste, so much that one packet fills my whole hand! If I eat all of that I will get sick. So we share it, eating it quickly. She eats it out of the palm of my hand. She looks like an animal. I know I look like an animal too, when I eat. I eat it quickly. I know we are not really animals. But we look like it now.

My sister is asleep. Her legs look like dry old sticks someone dragged from the bush for a fire. Her dress is dirty and her face is old. She is fifteen but she looks like a grandmother. She is sitting next to a man who we can’t believe lived long enough to get to the camp. He has no left leg. He stepped on a mine in the ground near the road.

Someone actually found some old sticks, so they made a fire, a very small one, on the ground. I walk over there slowly and sit beside it. The older boys are telling stories about where we are going when we leave this camp. They say we will go to Germany, or China, or Canada, or go live in the sky. They tell me stories about places where there is always food, and people can eat so much they become fat. They say there are places where everyone is clean and nobody has guns and there isn’t a war and the President isn’t a soldier.

They say that in that place, people like us can go and live and they say that all we need to do is learn English and take some job that nobody likes, and we will never hear a gun again. We will be able to walk without the ground exploding under us and tearing off our legs. They say we will be clean and eat everyday.

I stop sitting by the fire, and go to sit by my sister. She is beginning to get a big belly, too, but I think it isn’t because she is sick. I remember when the border guards took her away, the first time, months ago. How she wouldn’t talk after. I wonder if they did something to her to make her sick.

We are all going to be sick. I suddenly feel that in my stomach: we’re not going to live in Germany or in outer space, we’re not going to learn English or work jobs or walk on grass. We’re just going to get sick and die. I think that’s what this camp is for. To make us sick and kill us. So that there are no more people like us. Nobody needs to make a house for us. Nobody needs to waste good meal on us or give us their water.

The older boys are liars, I decide. It’s just too unbelievable, and I am not a little boy anymore. I am twelve. I know they are trying to tell us nice stories, happy stories. But I am not a little boy. I know better.

I can’t believe there is a place like that in this world.

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