What We Did: The Facts
"Willingness to rough it" was the phrase that called out to me during the lead up to a two-day refugee simulation, experiential learning visit to Lee House organised by CAFOD. A leap into the unknown- a new adventure! Armed with sleeping equipment, lots of warm clothes (as instructed) and a bundle of mixed emotions, I arrived at Preston train station to be greeted by Sarah (CAFOD youth coordinator), Joe (Lee House Host) and a group of seven other youth ministry volunteers from all corners of the country. Lots of smiles and joyful greetings put me at ease and we began our transfer to Lee House kindly provided by Lee House volunteers. Once we arrived at Lee House, situated in a remote area of the Ribble Valley, we had a quick wander around the beautiful grounds before eating lunch together outside. After lunch the icebreakers began and we all got to know each other a whole lot better, laughing and joking as we shared experiences that brought us closer as a group. We then had a short time for reflection in the attic of the house, which used to be a hidden chapel during the time of Catholic persecution. Joe asked us to be open-minded and challenge ourselves to enter fully into the experience; this was followed by some time of silence and personal reflection. He also told us of the role we would play: an indigenous community based in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil. We left the chapel, our last place of indoor warmth for the evening and headed outside to the tepee and fire area to learn some basic skills to prepare us for the night ahead. Herbal medicine, water collection and purification, wood collection and shelter building were the skills the Lee House volunteers taught us- it was really interesting and were of great use to us throughout the evening.
The simulation then began with a prayer to the spirits and a tribe council meeting where we thought about the different elements of nature and how humans cause harm and damage to the surroundings. We each gave voice to a certain aspect of nature imagining what it would say to mankind if it could have a voice. This ritual was interrupted by the noisy arrival of Delta Logging Company and their chainsaw. The representative informed our community that we had to leave the land (which was our home) as his company had bought it for logging. We were left in a field with some resources to build shelters. Midway through constructing our shelter for the evening the local (Brazilian) police arrived to force us into a detention centre in an attempt to identify us. This was very scary as we were pushed and pulled around as well as being separated from our fellow community members; we were shouted at in Portuguese in an attempt to get us to fill in identification forms, which were in a foreign language. After this experience we were all blindfolded and marched through the grounds into a dimly lit basement cell. Gradually all members of the community arrived in the cell and we were left for a while.
After half an hour (ish) we were released and sent to the courtroom where we were put before a judge who outlined the charges against us. Our community was deemed to be trespassing on Delta Logging Company's land as they had recently made a claim to it deeming in uninhabited. We were then sent back to our shelter building and given the rest of the evening to formulate our defence of the land in order to reappear before the court the following morning. The evening was cold so after celebrating mass with the visiting missionary priest (local parish priest) we ate a few pancakes, the ingredients provided by the priest, briefly discussed our plan for the trial the following day and tried to get some sleep. The night was windy and cold but we all stayed dry and huddled together. We rose with the sun at dawn and made some nettle tea over the fire to warm up before meeting to discuss our defence for the trial to follow. We came up with two main approaches:
1. Legal- The logging company had no right to fence and claim the land as we inhabited it. According to the law the Logging company could only claim the land if no one inhabited it.
2. Environmental- Recognising the detrimental long term effects of deforestation linking to issues such as pollution and the chain of cause and effects relating to local plant and wildlife population.
Following our discussions we spent an hour in the courtroom building upon, and fighting our case from the point of the indigenous community. One of the volunteers Chris acted as our barrister and, supported by a CAFOD representative, we won our argument by emphasising our habituation of the land in question.
This signalled the end of the refugee simulation, and, after some food we were given time to reflect on our experiences and learn more about CAFOD's campaigns surrounding climate change and sustainability. We had time to share some ideas and learn new activities to share with our youth teams before departing for our home communities.
Reflection: How I felt
On a personal level, there was a transformative experience when we were all sat together in the cell after being forced through the detention centre. Once all the nervous laughter had settled and we became less aware of our participation in a simulation we began to recognise the difficulties that we had faced and felt able to empathise with other communities in similar situations. There were several moments of silence during this period where we reflected on our experiences and how they had made us feel. Many of us felt dehumanised, venerable and therefore incredibly challenged. Sat on the floor of the cell we spoke about these feelings and began to fell the pain and suffering of others. This gave me an alternative perception and seemed to hit a nerve deep within emphasising a need to, and a want to, change this and encourage a more sustainable, respectful lifestyle towards local communities.
Once the simulation had come to an end many of the group voiced their views on the experience, particularly highlighting the ways that it had been worthwhile and made a difference to their life. For me this time helped me to get a grip on the scale of environmental issues and the great effect that they will have on future generations. It confirmed the absurd need of humankind to attain material possessions over spiritual or community connections. An increase in individualism and capitalism has encouraged these wider issues concerned with global justice and through this experiential learning visit my eyes have been opened, in a very real and visceral way, to the dangers associated with environmental issues, particularly those concerning local communities.