George Mason University Graduate Students Experience Humanitarian Complexities at Home

By Emma Laigaisse

Over April 21-23, 2023, 40 acres of woods in Garrett County, Maryland, USA were transformed into the country of Costero, a fictional country dealing simultaneously with a simmering ethnic conflict as well as growing wildfires. The recent wildfires in Canada are a reminder that wildfires have devastating impacts on a population, often requiring individuals to be displaced. During the field simulation, master’s degree students from the Carter School at George Mason University in Arlington, VA, USA and the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, USA role played as members of an international non-governmental organization – the Forage Corps – deployed to assess conditions; respond to the needs of internally displaced persons; and negotiate with government officials, aid groups, and local leaders.

I had the opportunity to talk with those participating and seek their views of the experience and how it transformed their thinking about humanitarian work.

During the two nights, the students slept in a cramped church basement that was at times cold. The outside temperatures were in the 40s F during the day and it rained during the 2-days. The work days were long – starting at around 6 a.m. and continuing until midnight. At times, students felt overloaded with the amount of information that needed to be evaluated including findings from interviews, briefings shared by country staff, and reports they needed to read. As part of the event, there were 30 roleplayers acting as internally displaced persons, members of NGOs, and government officials who made the graduate students feel the experience was real. Every element of the context in the simulation – social, historical, political, or religious – increased the sense of realism.

For some, the field simulation was a challenging experience. When the Costero police woke the Forage Corps in the middle of the night, Meron Derseh felt her heart in her chest. Carla San Miguel was cold, scared and dizzy because of medication she had taken. And when she joined her colleagues, they were all lined up in the dark and staring at her. She mentioned thinking the police were about to harm them and found herself uncontrollably shaking.

“It was overwhelming for us to see someone suffering and not being able to help, but we had no choice.”

The students took on the role of humanitarian workers and were determined to help internally displaced people. They quickly faced one of the difficulties encountered by real humanitarian workers – to accept they can’t provide or respond to every need. According to Meron, “This experience both broke and built my confidence.” “It was overwhelming for us to see someone suffering and not being able to help, but we had no choice” said Souleymane Diori. He added “We needed to help ourselves first.”

Due to the intense working and living conditions of the simulation, the experience recalled for students past trauma they had experienced.

It reminded Carla of hurricane María in Puerto Rico in 2017 when she had just about 10 minutes to pack essentials before leaving the area where she was living. After the debrief, she broke into tears and struggled to process this trauma she wasn’t aware of.

When the students shared how the simulation impacted them, they felt overwhelmed. “I would have broken down if I had to talk about it.” said Naomi Davis, another student.

The 54 hours of intensive teamwork taught them humanitarian work basic skills, stress and empathy management, communication skills, and the ability to strategize during a crisis. “The communication and teamwork was excellent and key for everything” said one student.

The 54 hours of intensive teamwork taught them humanitarian work basic skills, stress and empathy management, communication skills, and the ability to strategize during a crisis.

The students learned how to manage their emotions. It helped them build more confidence in the skills they have, especially during stressful situations or in the time of crises. Meron experienced guilt when an unexpected consequence happened: she gave information about one of the refugees which caused his arrest by the authorities. Internally, she felt like she shut down the part of her that needed to offer empathy.

A favorite part of the simulation for students was negotiation training led by Rusty Jones (roleplay character) , the Costero Country Director. It taught them how to speak with and influence NGOs and public figures. Naomi felt she built confidence as a result and was able to stand up for what she cares for, and Carla said she can use what she learned at her everyday job in her work.
The simulation demonstrated to students how important training is before going on the field. They all mentioned that they learned a lot about themselves and their capacities. The simulation helped them consider their roles as humanitarian workers. According to Victor Garcia-Lara, learning how to remain neutral, and keeping the integrity of a humanitarian organization was essential to the wellbeing of the population they were helping. Souleymane felt this experience was meaningful. “It makes you realize who you are in times of emergency, and how you can act in that situation”, he reflected.

The experience was considered by all as a first step in a humanitarian career. “Everyone going to humanitarian aid needs to do this first, “ felt one student. Several felt it is the closest experience you could have before going on the ground humanitarian work.

As a result of the simulation, several students had their interest spiked for humanitarian help work. Others realized they are more reluctant to step into the humanitarian world because of the demanding sacrifices it implies. They felt like they weren’t ready to challenge their emotional, psychological and physical condition.

In any case, they will all add it on their curriculum as a demanding experience they overcame. The certificate they received can be attached as well to their applications. “I want to say I have that kind of experience, I was on the field, it was real”, indicated Souleymane. For Victor it “broke the fourth wall” and he felt like he had way more to explore in terms of what he’s capable of.
All in all, the students left with new appreciation for the work of humanitarian professionals and whether it might be a career path for them.

*Emma Laigaisse was an exchange student at the Carter School at George Mason University in Arlington, VA in the spring 2023. A native of France and former French Red Cross worker who will be finishing in the fall 2023 her master’s degree in international development and cooperation at Sciences Po, an Institute of political studies in Strasburg, France.

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