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Don't Have to Live Like a Refugee

But a bunch of high-minded students tried it anyway.

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Last Thursday evening, a half dozen Loyola students huddled around a picnic table on their Rogers Park campus, eating lentils and rice out of disposable bowls. They'd pitched two giant tents and a third smaller one in the grassy area next to Mertz Residence Hall, and a makeshift chicken-wire fence marked the edge of their campsite. When they were done with dinner, a couple of them tried to get a fire going in a large metal garbage can while someone else handed out cups of sparkling lemonade.

The campers had pledged to spend the next 48 hours in tents, eating just one meal a day. The idea, in part, was to see what life might be like for refugees in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sleeping outside with a few friends on a quiet college green near the lake is hardly akin to the physical and emotional privation associated with living as a refugee, but the students said their larger aim was to alert people to the consequences of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"I think one of the goals is to make a spectacle, in the sense that you don't normally walk down this pathway and see these green tents," said Brian Christopher, a grad student in social philosophy. "It would be a stretch to say that we're re-creating refugee camp conditions in any way, shape, or form. But it is attracting people's attention, and we are handing out literature to passersby....So we're raising awareness, but not so that people will just say, 'Oh yeah, hmm, what a shame.' We're trying to get people to ask questions."

Originally scheduled for September 12 through 14, the encampment was intended to protest the UN Security Council/U.S. economic sanctions against Iraq. Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based campaign that sends delegations with medical supplies to Iraq to violate the sanctions, helped organize and sponsor the event. Emily Marion, a junior psychology major at Loyola, said that after the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan she began to think of the encampment as "more encompassing...in terms of not just Iraqi refugees but Afghan refugees and just U.S. policy in general."

The campers ate what they said were the official UN rations given to refugees in the Middle East: lentils, rice, and tea. "I mean, they're not gonna have tents or sleeping bags or neat little stoves you can build, but we're eating the same food, and I think it's just solidarity, kind of, in mind," explained Marisa Lazio, a junior majoring in social work. But they cooked their lentils over a portable camping stove, and when their Iraqi tent wouldn't stay up, they used tents from a sporting goods store instead.

"Before the windstorm hit, we had this tent that Joe--he works at Voices--brought over from Iraq," Lazio said. "It's over there. It didn't work out--we didn't have the poles to put it up. We tried to make our own poles, but to no avail."

"And in the video of [Voices in the Wilderness cofounder] Kathy Kelly when she lived in Basra, it actually shows her using a little stove too," Marion added.

Lazio and Christopher met only two people who reacted negatively to the encampment; one woman said she thought refugees in Afghanistan were getting what they deserved. Most passersby seemed happy to take a flyer, and several stopped to talk and help give out information. A campus reporter who showed up Thursday evening was so impressed that she stayed the night.

"I'm just hoping to get students to see that there is really another reality out there, that there's a world of people who are suffering, largely because of the U.S. foreign policy that has been enacted on them for the last 11 years," said John Farrell, a graduate student in philosophy. "It's distressing to me when you see that there's this disconnectedness--people can kind of see what's going on in our own country and as far as our own borders, but to realize that the actions of our own country are affecting other people I think cries out for justice in the same way that the actions that took lives on September 11 cry out for justice."

Some of the students said they thought of their encampment as a sit-in, and they hoped they might encourage onlookers to let their congressmen know they disapproved of bombing and sanctions in the Middle East. All the campers believed in the power of ordinary people to effect change in governmental policy, if only enough people knew what was really going on.

"If we can get them to a point where they start asking questions about this, then things are gonna change," Christopher said. "It's appalling how the media--excuse me, many parts of the media--are controlling the information that we're told. It's scary when you think about the amount of control that certain entities in our society have, and the control amounts to preventing people from asking questions, so I think a big part of what we're doing is trying to get people to ask the questions.

"And if at the end, if they see all the facts and figures and faces, and if they hear the stories, and they still say, 'Yeah, these sanctions are well and justified,' well then, so be it. But I have a feeling that the majority of people wouldn't come to that conclusion if they saw, if they could just see."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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