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UNF Students ‘Walk A Mile In A Refugee’s Shoes’

Ryan Benk
Psychology major Jeff Mixon is trying to cash his check in order to buy his family groceries.

Jacksonville is the primary hub for refugees entering Florida through the U.S. Department of State program.

Many River City natives aren’t aware how hard it can be for their new neighbors to adapt to life on the First Coast.

A University of North Florida professor is aiming to change that by getting her students to walk a mile in a refugee’s shoes.

Your first year of college can be confusing and frustrating. Living on your own for the first time, with household chores and finances, is enough stress for any 18-year-old.

At UNF’s student union Tuesday night, Professor Leslie Kaplan made it even harder for her 154 students.

Kaplan said she augmented aUnited Way Poverty Simulation to fit the specific frustration a new refugee might feel.

“So, in a conversation with them, they were telling me about it, and someone said ‘is there a way we could adapt this to make this a refugee simulation?’ because they also live in poverty so it will be very similar,” she said.

Kaplan’s divided freshmen into family groups and assigned them new names, ages and countries of origin. They were surrounded by stations that represent the bank, social services, the grocery store, jobs and school. They have to navigate this complicated network in order to survive the exercise.

Psychology major Jeff Mixon is playing the role of a non-English speaking Afghan father. After week one — a period of 15 minutes, for this demonstration — he’s already exasperated.

“It was really frustrating because I did my job — I have a full-time job ?— I finally get my check and there’s this long line to get your check and then I have to get in the long line to go to the bank to cash my check and before I can cash my check, it’s the weekend and the offices are closed,” he said. “I’ve got a check, but I can’t buy anything with it.”

Volunteers from organizations that work with refugees across Northeast Florida played the parts of social workers to give the simulation an extra hint of realism and afterwards, Kaplan said, they debriefed students on how the experience compares to real life.

“The volunteers who are a mix of upperclassmen, alumni, faculty and volunteers in the community— most of whom have a real job in the refugee resettlement community — they’ll talk about what they know from their perspective,” she said.

Kaplan said she doesn’t expect every one of her students to pursue a career in refugee services, but she’s hoping the frustration they feel during the three-hour experiment makes them more empathetic.

There are three major organizations that resettle refugees in Jacksonville — Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and World Relief.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at, at (904) 358 6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.