Nation & World

Simulating chaos to teach order

5 min read

Weekend workshop puts humanitarian students to the test

A troubled piece of Africa came to North Andover, Mass., last weekend (April 24-26) as more than 50 students from a collaborative, three-university humanitarian program took part in a hands-on outdoor field course that simulated an emergency on the border between Chad and Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

The three-day, role-playing exercise had students acting as members of Doctors Without Borders, International Medical Corps, and other humanitarian agencies to assess and develop crisis response plans for a simulated flare-up in Darfur that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Chad.

Scattered through Harold Parker State Forest were simulated refugee camps, roadblocks, and hazards such as landmines and militia groups. Large groups of refugees were represented by different-colored flags that participants had to locate and tally. Some represented deaths from a variety of causes that participants had to analyze. Providing the human element were some 60 volunteers who put faces on the numbers, playing the roles of local leaders, bereft parents, border guards, and even roving militia bands, complete with child soldiers.

The exercise was open to participants in an intensive two-week course in humanitarian studies offered in January by the Inter-University Initiative on Humanitarian Studies and Field Practice, a collaboration of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Friedman School of Nutrition, Science and Policy at Tufts University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is coordinated by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and the Alan Shawn Feinstein International Center at Tufts. The simulation was organized by a team led by Assistant Professor of Medicine Hilarie Cranmer, HHI’s director of education initiatives.

HHI Co-Director Michael VanRooyen, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Division of International Health and Humanitarian Programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said the weekend simulation is part of a broader effort by HHI to improve training for those interested in entering humanitarian work.

VanRooyen said humanitarian workers usually learn the specifics of how to work in the chaotic, complex, and sometimes dangerous conditions of a humanitarian emergency in the field, on the job, and under incredible pressure.

“There’s been no professional track to help people understand the theory behind it,” VanRooyen said. “We’re trying to simulate as closely as can be a humanitarian emergency in Chad-Darfur.”

The weekend started Friday morning (April 24) at a simulated Chadian airport where, VanRooyen reported, students were “significantly hassled” by mock Chadian soldiers. After that, the students were briefed by VanRooyen and other program leaders and issued camping gear to get them through two overnights in the forest.

They were broken into eight teams representing prominent nongovernmental organizations and sent into the forest. The students had to organize themselves, assess the situation by visiting mock refugee camps — some of which were hidden and could be found only by interviewing volunteers posing as refugees. At the camps, they counted the living and dead, represented by flags, and talked to representative role-players posing as local leaders, vulnerable refugees, and others.

The weekend was punctuated by a nighttime militia raid that took hostages, requiring negotiations for their release, and the total destruction of one refugee camp, requiring a hunt for mass graves and a genocide investigation.

“This is the closest that a lot of these students have ever come to a humanitarian emergency, with these kinds of pressures. … This is living a case,” VanRooyen said. “It’s very difficult to get that experience.”

VanRooyen himself has spent a career in the world’s trouble spots, doing just such work. His own experiences convinced him that more formal training is needed to prepare people before they are thrown into the fire of a humanitarian crisis.

Laura Janneck, a master of public health student at HSPH, said the training provided by HHI, including the humanitarian studies initiative course and the weekend simulation, were what drew her to Harvard.

“Part of the reason I came to Harvard was the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and what they did,” Janneck said, adding of the course, “I thought it was fantastic.”

Peter Moschovis, a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, was one of the weekend’s volunteers, playing a local sultan at the Am Nabak refugee camp. At one point, he urged would-be humanitarian workers not just to count heads and go, but to do some good for the people there — both the residents and the refugees.

Moschovis, who worked in postwar Kosovo and who has worked with refugees in Greece, said he was presenting the perspective of a local leader who was trying to protect his own people: the local villagers who are hosting the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

“I want them to actually do something,” said Moschovis, before returning to negotiations for malaria medicine.

Mona Haidar, a master of public health student at HSPH who took part in the simulation, said she thought it was a good counterpoint to the more formal learning students do in the classroom. She said the organizers had struck a good balance between preparing them for the weekend and surprising them with new wrinkles.

Vincenzo Bollettino, HHI’s director of programs and administration, played the role of a refugee whose wife had died in childbirth and whose 1-week-old son was sick. He spent a part of Friday afternoon trying to get one of the relief workers to take the son with them to safety, with no luck. Though it’s difficult to completely prepare students for what they’ll face in the field, Bollettino said the simulation helps by throwing situations at them that they might not encounter in the classroom.