Photo by Kathryn Power.
Photo by Kathryn Power.
Displays in Colleges 9 and 10 acknowledged forced migration and displacement. Photo by Kathryn Power.
Displays in Colleges 9 and 10 acknowledged forced migration and displacement. Photo by Kathryn Power.

“I want people to get a sense of what it is like to live in a tent, not to have human rights, and to lack self-sustaining skills.”

-Tony Hoffman, Children and War Professor

Three canvas tents, an array of posters and pictures devoted to the plight of child refugees, and a wooden sign labeled “Forced Migration” were on display between Colleges Nine and Ten on the grassy quad last week.

Students of psychology professor Tony Hoffman’s Children and War class collaborated to create a presentation spreading information about forced migration — the forced movements or displacement of persons due to conflicts, war, disasters, and famine.

One of the main focuses of the class involves the growing research on intervention for children, and how they deal psychologically with war and crisis situations.

“[Forced migration] is a really unknown, hidden issue that we should care about,” Megan Ackerman, a fourth-year psychology major from Kresge, said. “Millions and millions of people are affected and they are deserving of aid.”

The class hoped that public awareness would ultimately increase attention and humanitarian aid, motivating others to make a change and realize the extent of human suffering around the world. Hoffman, who has taught the class for four years, first implemented the project in spring 2007, and has made participation a requirement of the class.

“I want people to get a sense of what it is like to live in a tent, not to have human rights, and to lack self-sustaining skills,” Hoffman said.

The tents on display were previously used in Darfur and donated by Catholic Relief Services, serving as a visual aid to demonstrate how eight to 12 people would typically live on the ground, exposed to dirt, dust, and lessened sanitation for prolonged periods of time.

Roughly nine groups worked on separate topics for three weeks relating to issues concerning child refugees such as life in camps, humanitarian aid efforts, child protection, human rights, and real accounts of children’s experiences in places affected by war and natural disasters like Afghanistan, Darfur, and Haiti.

“We need to educate students about the reality of how some people have to live,” said Elimah Gerken, a fourth-year psychology major from Cowell college. Gerken served as a class leader, helping to organize and oversee the project. “Each group put in a substantial amount of work.”

The project aims to educate students about the fear and uncertainty that many children endure as they struggle to survive in unfamiliar and dangerous territories, oftentimes without their families or basic necessities like food, clean water, healthcare, safety, and security.

According to the United Nations, more than 2.7 million people have fled their homes due to widespread violence caused by civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti in January also displaced hundreds of thousands.

“Our biggest crisis[es] right now [are] Haiti and Sudan, and how little responsiveness there is from the world,” Hoffman said. “The spread of HIV is all over war zones. The epidemic is increasing, and most people in America think that it is going away.”

There are 34.4 million people of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). Half of them are children.

Having visited a number of affected countries, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Congo, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and Haiti, Hoffman speaks about refugeesfrom experience.

The passion he has for his work in aiding refugees increased after he visited a friend in Liberia, and witnessed the effects firsthand.

“There was a refugee camp next to the airport. My eyes were opened,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman recently spent five weeks in Haiti coordinating safe places for children in displacement camps, in conjunction with the American Refugee Committee (ARC), a nonprofit relief organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The spaces were intended to provide a sense of security amidst the heavily damaged city of Port-au-Prince.

Donations play a major role in allowing organizations to aid those in need. Funding can provide tents and blankets for shelter, medical attention, food, and clean water.

Claire Hutter, a fourth-year psychology major from College Eight and Alix Wiley, a third-year psychology major from College Nine, stated that there is often a great sense of disconnect and apathy present in the United States regarding the issue of forced migration.

“Those places are so distant from our minds, and are so culturally different that it’s hard to relate to their suffering,” Hoffman said. “I think people also see there are no solutions to these problems, when there really are lots of things you can do.”

Hoffman is pleased with the impact the class has had on his students, who over the quarter have become more motivated and involved with child refugee issues.

“I became more passionate after taking the class and about the issues that kids deal with,” fourth-year Megan Ackerman, one of Hoffman’s students, said.

Elimah Gerken, one of the project organizers, was moved enough by her interest in humanitarian aid and the issues relating to children that she is considering joining the Peace Corps in order to be physically able to make a difference and work with those affected.

“This class gives me a perspective or idea of the kinds of things that I may be working with,” she said.

Hoffman considers the Forced Migration Project a success, and remains determined to continue helping refugees and displaced persons.

“A lot of my students have changed career paths because of these studies around resilience and vulnerability and children in extreme circumstances,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think in our imagined lifetime we will see the end of war, but I do think that humanitarian aid is improving steadily. There is hope.”