Sarah Jystad, a freshman at Hofstra University who grew up in a gated community in Southern California, admits she has lived an "extremely sheltered" life. But Monday morning, she straggled out of a rain-soaked tent, ate a small ration of rice and water, and started her first full day of living like a refugee.
Jystad and a couple dozen other Hofstra students are replicating life in a refugee camp this week to bring attention to the plight of millions of people displaced by wars and genocide in Colombia, Myanmar, Sudan and elsewhere. They're sleeping in tents, subsisting on small portions of rice and listening to speakers, including several who spent time as refugees.
Of course, the students are in the middle of a Long Island college campus, so they have a website, PowerPoint presentations, "and they still have to go to classes," said dean of students Peter Libman, who plans to sleep in a tent Tuesday night.
The first night, Sunday, seven pretend refugees in a quad near the library were treated to an orchestra of thunder and a downpour that soaked socks and sneakers, and destroyed the cell phone of Josh Gwin, president of the campus group Human Action, which organized the event.
"Refugees are the world's forgotten population, and we want to make people aware of them," said Gwin, who got the idea for a weeklong tent city from activists at Queens College. A junior from Oregon majoring in political science and global studies, he wants to work in human rights after graduation.
Preparing the week's events, students learned it's tough to even agree on a definition of "refugees." New Orleans families left homeless after Hurricane Katrina aren't called refugees because they didn't flee persecution. Still, Gwin predicted the next decades will bring a surge of "climate refugees" escaping deforested areas and the growing Sahara desert.
One of Monday's speakers, Aileen Doyle, of the nonprofit group Journalists for Human Rights, flew in from Toronto and was impressed with the students' commitment. "It's really visual, and it's creating a good buzz," she said.
The students worked with the provost's office and campus police, and have to pay for a security guard to watch over their tent city at night. Each participant also signed a contract agreeing not to start a campfire or drink alcohol.
Libman noted that 800 students raised about $60,000 for cancer research during a weekend relay. He said that's why Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz says the students are part of the " 'What can I do for you?' generation."
Christiaan Perez, a sophomore from California who is majoring in political science, spent Sunday night in a homemade tent. He found the cold, soggy weather perfect. "It makes it easier to empathize with what refugees around the world are going through."