What's it like to be a refugee...orced by war or disaster to flee your home and live as a stranger in a foreign place? Fourteen ninth-graders from Big...

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What’s it like to be a refugee — forced by war or disaster to flee your home and live as a stranger in a foreign place?

Fourteen ninth-graders from Big Picture High School in Burien got a glimpse of that as part of a recent class project designed to simulate the experiences of fictional families from Afghanistan, Ukraine and Somalia.

World Relief, which helps to resettle about 1,000 refugees in the Puget Sound region each year, organized the re-enactment as part of its Refugee Project program.

The high-school class included one student who is an immigrant and others whose parents came to the U.S. from Mexico, Eritrea and Nicaragua. Most of the students, though, are from families with deep roots in the U.S.

Big Picture High, with 68 total students, was formed a year ago in the Highline School District as a progressive, college-ready school that promotes smaller class sizes.

On the morning she and her classmates came to World Relief’s office in the Chinatown International District, Corina Myers said she had questions about recent immigrants and hoped the project would provide answers. “We’re learning about different cultures and why some people are the way they are,” she said.

Project coordinator Sandra Van der Pol shared statistics on the world’s refugee population — that about 9.2 million live in refugee camps outside their home countries, for an average of eight to 10 years — numbers that stunned many of the students.

Often, she told them, refugees end up in countries whose residents don’t want them. As a result, many become victims all over again — the women and girls raped, the men forced into rebels’ armies.

Only 1 percent get resettled in a third country, such as the U.S.

“Many of those who come here have never used electricity; they’ve never turned on a faucet,” Van der Pol said.

She said many also struggle to complete official forms that are foreign to them in style, if not language. In some cultures, people write from right to left, rather than left to right as is traditionally done in the U.S.

The students were given forms to complete — with questions about themselves and their families written backward. They were required to write their answers that way as well. “How did you feel?” she later asked.

“I felt dumb,” several answered.

“Filling out forms can be a huge hassle — and nobody will help you,” she said. Yet the documents are key to where a refugee ultimately ends up.

The students split into groups and dressed in the head scarves and garb of the family they were depicting. “You mean we’re going outside looking like that?” one boy whined.

The “families” spread out across the Chinatown International District — which became their “refugee camp” — for mock interviews with volunteers playing the part of a U.S. State Department representative, a medical screener and a feeding-station attendant.

Dressed in colorful skirt and a head scarf, student Julian Cruzat-Anderson enthusiastically embraced his role as the 17-year-old daughter in a Ukrainian family hoping to immigrate to the U.S.

Van der Pol explained later that some refugees, like those from the Ukraine, never actually live in refugee camps, but that the exercise was meant to help convey the experiences of refugees in general.

“At first I wasn’t that interested in immigration stuff,” Cruzat-Anderson said. But he said several people have come to his school to talk about the subject and he got engrossed after working on a project about the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Cruzat-Anderson and the other members of his fictional family told the State Department representative that they’d been persecuted because of their Christian religion.

During the interview — key in determining whether they would resettle in the U.S. — the four struggled to answer simple questions about where the parents met and where in Russia they actually lived.

Shytwan Manor, who played the family patriarch, said afterward that “I felt like I was saying the wrong thing.”

“I got confused,” he said.

At the camp’s medical screening center, the family learned about the need to boil water, that cleanliness is a grave concern in the camps because diseases are rampant. And at the feeding station, they learned how important it is to queue up early.

Supplies are meager in these camps. “Vegetables, powdered milk and oil; it’s all you get for two weeks,” a stern-faced Van der Pol, who manned the station, told them. The family would get just 5 gallons of water a day total, for cooking, bathing, drinking — for everything.

While the real-life details may vary from camp to camp, Van der Pol said, the experience is largely the same.

In the end, it was all a bit much for student Cruzat-Anderson, who said, “If that is real, I don’t think I’d make it past the first week.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com