The irony does not escape me. I’m sitting on my couch, petting my pomeranian and watching the Olympics while yelling at Bob Costas. Cradled between my dog and a bowl of homemade chicken salad sit various Apple products. I use the iPhone for tweeting my disgust for Bob, the MacBook for reading the occasional email and an iPad for downloading apps and playing games.
This seems like an average day for most Americans. But it’s ironic because I’m playing with the ‘My Life as a Refugee’ app from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – the UN Refugee Agency, all while snuggled under my plush blanket from Brookstone with air conditioner well below 68 degrees. It’s a rough life in the first world.
But let’s get serious, because life and death decisions do happen in this world, and the plight of refugees is not funny.
Coinciding with the UNHCR’s launch of the ‘1 is Too Many’ campaign, ‘My Life as a Refugee’ takes an innovative approach to bring awareness to the awful situations refugees endure. In order to understand the issues refugees contend with, three unique stories were designed based on actual experiences. For players to empathize with the life of a refugee, they have to become one. Players begin the game by selecting a character: Merita – pregnant and in the center of a civil war; Paulo – 15 years old and forced to become a child solider; and Amika – a young mother speaking out for women’s rights. By virtually living these roles, the player is faced with making the same decisions that these individuals encounter in war-torn, poverty-stricken countries.
So, I’m Merita. Married, seven months pregnant with my third child, and…damn, now a widow as soon as I push the “Let’s get started” button. My husband was shot and killed and now I have two kids and my mother to care for. I start freaking out from the pressure with only 30 seconds to make the first decision. The scenario unfolds like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and flashing back to my childhood, I immediately regret each choice and wish I could flip back one page.
Now Merita and her son (we lost my daughter and mother along the way) are in a refugee camp after bribing a guide and sneaking across the border. I’m hungry, pregnant and scared as hell. Do I wait in line for food or go to the clinic? Let’s try our luck in the clinic…but I don’t make it because I faint on my way there.
Fast forward three months and I’ve given birth to a son. I’m still living in a tent, and now I need to decide whether to leave the camp to start a new life, or wait in hopes of returning home someday. I choose to start a new life in the city. Although with a newborn and a young son, I’m torn, and it takes time for me to commit to the decision and push the button on my high-res screen. This is when I, the real I, realize the app has me immersed in Merita’s life, and the decisions that take me a few nail-biting minutes were choices she made once. In her real life.
I find work in a sweatshop. An authority figure asks to see my papers (which I forgot to take with me when I left my home in a hurry and grabbed “food and water”). I don’t speak the language. I’m deported to the border. I’m arrested and jailed for life. And that’s the end of Merita’s story. What? That’s how my life story ends? I change my mind. I will remember my papers. I will hide in the woods. I will stay in the refugee camp. I will not let go of my daughter’s hand.
But this is no game, and a video message by Angelina Jolie at the end of each scenario reinforces this message, and discusses the reality of the current state of affairs. Links to donate, learn more, start a new scenario and share on social media end the app’s experience, but in reality it is just the beginning, or the continuation of what has been for generations.
Now, as I might have mentioned earlier, the paradox of role-playing a refugee through my iPad is…ironic. But I’m not so dysfunctionally spoiled that I don’t learn something here. The free app is available for iPhone and iPad, and it is worth a download. Parents with rotten kids? Make them play. Your dreadlocks are drenched in patchouli? Share with your friends. Wall Street finance guy with no time for anything but Wall Street and finance? Your loss. But if we all play this simulation once, at the very least we’ll be more aware of the plight of refugees around the world, and that seems to be the honorable goal of UNHCR.