They come from countries in distress, fleeing war and persecution. They leave family and loved ones behind, all for a chance at a better life. But often the conditions that await them aren’t much of an improvement.
A recent offering at Pinecrest Academy opened students’ eyes to the plight of the more than 50,000 refugees living in Georgia.
Through the Refugee Camp Immersion program, students and community members spent a few hours over the weekend living in a camp that had been set up on the campus of the private Catholic school in south Forsyth.
“We don’t really have the practical application of what it means to be an immigrant, so I think that out of curiosity, sometimes, we want to see what it’s like coming to the U.S. and seeking refuge,” said Melissa Foley, a Pinecrest faculty member.
Foley heads up IGNITE, a Christian service program at Pinecrest that encourages students to take on projects like the refugee camp. Seniors lead, with underclassmen serving as helpers.
Students walked through the mock camp Friday and the tour was open to the public Saturday.
Visitors began by passing through a “border patrol” at the lower gym entrance. There, Branka Dondui greeted them with registration forms, which she explained in Croatian.
Dondui, a former refugee who found her footing with the help of Catholic Charities Atlanta, said the participants didn’t know what to do, much like what happens in an actual camp.
The tour in the gym showed visitors how much water and food they would be allotted, what kind of accommodations they could expect and a look at the grim reality of medical care.
The water station was the most impactful for many visitors, with visual aids representing daily allotments.
Kim Longshore pointed to a one gallon jug, which is what the typical refugee receives per day for all water needs.
On the other end, several storage containers were stacked up to illustrate 100 gallons of water, the amount an average American uses per day.
Student project leaders Luke Del Balzo and Brian Flanagan said their peers took a strong interest in learning about refugees and seeing the stark contrast between their own lives and those in camps.
Flanagan has been on mission trips before, but said the situation is different for refugees.
“Your life could change like that, and you could be in a place like this,” he said, adding that the camp made the thought feel real. “By building it, we really understood the basic aspects.”
The student leaders also said many were surprised to learn how many refugees are in Georgia. In the past 20 years, the state has resettled 50,000, making it one of the top 10 states, according to information from Catholic Charities.
Some former refugees work with the organization and shared their experiences during the camp.
Staff writer Alyssa LaRenzie contributed to this report.