Learning a new language and making new friends in a foreign land are just a few of the hardships faced by refugee children. They also encounter cultural differences that affect their ability to adapt; they worry about friends and families back in their home country; and they struggle with the uncertainty of acceptance in a foreign land.
Since 2002, Lansing’s Refugee Development Center (RDC) has been serving refugee families, with the mission of providing educational opportunities that will lead newcomers of all ages to self-sufficiency. The organization has grown from one part-time staff member and a handful of volunteers to a staff of 10 full-time employees, approximately 300 volunteers, and the ability to serve over 2,000 newcomers annually.
One age group we serve – teenagers – has a unique challenge. Once refugee children are out of primary school, the number of programs that reach directly out to them begins to dwindle. These young people come from all corners of the world, bringing with them different traditions, perspectives, and strengths. With their families, these recent arrivals are determined to build better lives and futures, but they need tools and support from their communities.
So, what is The Next Idea?
Inspired by the innovator and educator John Hunter, and in partnership with MSU’s Residential College of Arts and Humanities (RCAH), the RDC is using something called Peace Game to give voice to refugee youth. Founded in 2014, The World Peace Game Foundation "is a hands-on political simulation that gives players the ‘opportunity to explore the connectedness of the global community through the lens of the economic, social, and environmental crises and the imminent threat of war.’” Able to be adapted for any age group, the game is a structural outline to inspire youth to think more about what world peace could really mean.
For two years, RDC and RCAH have partnered to work with students on developing a form of the Peace Game that is relevant to their lives. More than 20 teens from Lansing gather each week at the Refugee Development Center to engage in Peace Game. The students have designed and developed a game board depicting three fictitious countries, identified multiple crises relevant to their lives, and assigned themselves roles such as prime minister, secretary of state, environmental activist, etc. The purpose is not for all the students to come to one grand, ideal solution. It’s for them to work together toward mutual understanding, respect, and peace – in whatever ways they may find.
This weekly exercise is far more than just a game. It empowers youth from around the world to take on complex topics and think about how they have the capability to solve them, while helping them develop problem-solving and reasoning skills.
Most importantly, the teenage refugees are the problem solvers, the solution seekers, the teachers of peaceful resolution. They are learning through the course of this program that they are the leaders. Many young refugees have experienced conflict and suffered trauma. They’ve fled war-torn countries where major conflicts have taken place, or where serious human rights abuses have occurred. Often, especially in the current climate, refugees can be viewed as a “problem” that we need to solve via services, donations, giving. Yet here, at Peace Game, it is the students who are teaching us about solving complex world problems. The students are learning that their ideas and voices are acutely important, useful and needed. They are learning that they can be – and are – the agents of change.
Complementary to the Peace Game is a photography component. Photography is an accessible tool for self-expression. Participants are given a camera and tasked with taking photos of the challenges and success they see daily in their community. Each week students view and discuss each other’s photographs, enabling conversation about challenging topics from family and friendships to hopes and dreams. This allows them to visually express themselves and think about how they can address problems in non-traditional ways – to see things in a different light, if you will. Through discussion and dialogue, photography enables learning about the world and about each other. This, in turn, gives students confidence and agency to express themselves during Peace Game and in their daily lives.
Long-term, the Peace Game will continue creating safe places for open discussion of personal and global issues and solutions for newcomer teens living in the heart of Michigan. These students, these young voices, are teaching us to be more tolerant, accepting, and communicative. They are teaching us to be better listeners. We can all learn from their dedication to peaceful solutions, and a peaceful future.
Erika Brown-Binion is executive director of the Refugee Development Center in Lansing.
The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.