MARCO WERMAN: Stories about the situation in Darfur have helped raise the profile of humanitarian aid work. That's led to an increase in the number of people applying for jobs with aid agencies. But working for a non-governmental organization in Darfur or Pakistan or Sri Lanka can be more grueling physically and mentally than many people anticipate. So a program run by several Boston area universities tries to prepare future aid workers by exposing them to a simulated refugee crisis. The World's Katie Clark went along and filed this report.
KATIE CLARK: It's Saturday morning and the sun's just breaking through the trees at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, Massachusetts. But Hilarie Crammer is already busy. She briefs me on what's been happening since yesterday. That's when the three-day simulation started and the forest became a stand-in for the arid border area between Chad and Darfur.
HILARIE CRAMMER: There's a huge amount of militia activity throughout the night. Various factions were seen marching in and around the NGO camps, harassing the NGOs and then lots of gunfire was heard, and lots of people moving last night.
CLARK: Crammer runs the Humanitarian Studies Initiative at Harvard University. Faculty at Harvard and Tufts University, devised this very realistic simulation several years ago to challenge grad students who are completing a certificate course in humanitarian response. This exercise lets students practice what they've learned in class.
FEMALE STUDENT: You're a local. You know much more about we do than the weather. Are you expecting any big changes? Is rainy season coming soon?
MALE STUDENT: I don't know.
FEMALE STUDENT: We're in the middle of dry season?
CLARK: Here, some of the more than 50 students taking part in the simulation pretend to be members of a western NGO. Part of their assignment is to interview local staff in charge of the various refugee camps in the simulation. They try to figure out how their agency can best serve the struggling people.
FEMALE STUDENT: I think that you've answered all of our questions. Thank you so much, Dan, and you are a strong man helping your community.
MALE STUDENT: Yes, thank you, Justine. Oh, and I know that I get more money from our donors, yeah, if I have women on my staff, yeah. So, if you'd like to come work for me, please let me know.
FEMALE STUDENT: We'll let you know.
MALE STUDENT: More money, more food for the people, yes? Okay.
CLARK: To make the simulation as real as possible, participants must stay in character throughout the weekend. They sleep in tents, dine on military rations and encounter volunteers who pretend to be pesky reporters and surly border guards. Painted sticks stand in for groups of refugees. Each of the five refugee camps in the simulation presents students with a unique health challenge. Hilarie Crammer says, "At the Oure Cassoni Camp, it's diarrhea."
CRAMMER: So, they're supposed to at Oure Cassoni today is do some water interventions. So they're building the latrines and they're purifying water and they're going to compete with each other when they show up as NGOs and they're just going to be like Top Chef Humanitarian."
CLARK: Most of the simulation leaders have done stints in overseas crisis zones themselves and it's clear they're enjoying a little payback at their students' expense. Still, Peter Walker, professor at Tufts University, says he wishes there'd been something like this before he got into humanitarian work more than 20 years ago. "It's not the type of life you want to commit to," he says, "unless you're sure you're cut out for it." Walker says one of the things that always amazes him is how hard it is for students in the simulation to distinguish between what they report as fact and what they merely suspect is fact.
PETER WALKER: You know, these people have been at a top university for three years. They still will say things like, "There were 2,000 people in the camp and there's 1,000 rebels." I said, "How do you know? Did you research?" "Oh, no, no, somebody told me there were 1,000 rebels." And the point is if you don't make that distinction, you have no idea what the information is.
CLARK: Later, when the students tell Walker that the armed men who attacked their camp the night before were "Janjaweed" militiamen because they said they were. He again stresses the importance of getting the facts straight.
WALKER: It could have been the Janjaweed or it could have been another group trying to set the Janjaweed up. Yeah. So how would you interpret this if nobody was killed, nobody was injured, nobody was abducted, nothing was stolen.
STUDENT: It could be general harassment, really.
WALKER: Sounds much more to be like somebody's trying to put the frighteners on you, or somebody's trying to set up an incident that gets reported to the press?
CLARK: Many of those helping out this weekend are former students. Devon Cone was in the simulation last year. It was enough to convince some in her class that aid work wasn't for them.
DEVON CONE: In these humanitarian situations you often live, work and eat with the same people and play with the same people. You can't leave compounds and you have these curfews like we have here and you're in small confined spaces. If you can't be in a small, confined space with strangers, then you're not going to be able to do this work, and I think people do realize that after a weekend.
CLARK: Cone's done humanitarian work in Kenya, and she finds the simulation realistic, though she does have one minor complaint.
CONE: They kind of overdo the security incidents here, but I think that's really important because the work is really important and needed and if you kind of are out of commission, then you have a lot of people that are relying on you that don't get what they need.
CLARK: For many refugees, one of the things they often need is a way to cook their rations distributed by aid workers. In real life Darfur, women who leave the security of the camps to search for fire wood risk being raped. Organizers of this year's simulation figured a possible solution might be introducing inexpensive solar cookers. Ovens that use the sun's rays for cooking have been around for generations. But they're getting a fresh look ever since a cheap version uses two cardboard boxes, black paint, and some reflective foil won first prize this year in a contest for green ideas. These future aid workers agree to try building one. Organizers hope that one day they'll teach the same skills to refugees.
WALKER: How hot do the ovens get?
STUDENT: Well, from our initial testing you can apparently boil ten liters of water in two hours.
STUDENT: You look skeptical.
WALKER: Does it need to be used in kind of an equatorial climate, or would it work in say North America somewhere?
STUDENT: Yes. If this works, my gas bill in Boston goes down.
WALKER: So Boston, Chad?
STUDENT: Yeah, Boston.
WALKER: Or Boston, Darfur.
CLARK: Here in the woods north of Boston, Massachusetts, the sun dipped behind the tress before the water in the solar cooker reached boiling. Given the desert landscape of the real Darfur, trees likely wouldn't be such an issue. For The World, this is Katie Clark, North Andover, Massachusetts.
STUDENT: We only know the theory [SOUNDS LIKE} in the field role.
WERMAN: If you're curious how many doctors it took to build a latrine in the simulated refugee crisis, Katie's put together an audio slide show. You can find it at theworld.org.