Vegetarian Action

Through the Eyes of a Refugee – Vegan Spring Break Trip

By Yasmin Radbod

I am sure you have heard what the stereo- typical college spring break consists of, right? It is a time for partying and fun. There are some college students, however, who spend their spring breaks doing something very meaningful while also having a good time. My first week of freshman year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), I stumbled upon Alternative Spring Breaks (ASB). I became interested in attending one of the many trips offered, everything from an environmental trip to a homeless plunge. At the same time, I also began volunteering at the Refugee Youth Project (RYP) in Baltimore, which connects college students with high school refugee students; the high school students receive tutoring and attend trips and outings.

I put two and two together and decided to create an ASB trip specifically about refugees in Baltimore. I created a five-day trip in which 10 UMBC students would have the opportunity to volunteer with refugees in Baltimore and live in a mock refugee camp I designed myself called Through the Eyes of a Refugee (TEAR). The twist is that I made the entire trip vegan, for a couple reasons. One, I have been vegan for more than four years, and since I created and led the trip, I wanted to make it vegan. That way everyone could eat the food. Secondly, in many refugee camps, meat is a commodity that is sparse and expensive. Refugee camps that receive international aid from organizations such as the Human Refugee Agency of the United Nations (UNHCR), UNICEF, or Oxfam International are stocked with packaged foods, and meat is hard to come by. The same goes for animal byproducts. Dairy is usually given in the form of powdered milk. Lastly, living in a refugee camp means sacrifice, so I wanted the students on the trip to have to sacrifice something as part of the experience. I decided, what better experience than having to be vegan for five days?

The first two days of the trip consisted of living in the mock refugee camp at Gwynns Falls Park near UMBC. No electronics were allowed, and there was no running water or electricity. We heated lentil soup over an open fire and ate it out of the can. No one was happy with the food selection, but that was part of the immersion. The next day, we had oatmeal for breakfast, and we took a hike through the park and ate trail mix. At the camp, I did various refugee simulations using different manuals I found through organizations that serve refugees. We also read through some actual refugee cases from the UNHCR's website.

The rest of TEAR consisted of actual volunteering. We spent one day volunteering with adult refugees at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Baltimore, helping them with their résumés. Another day was spent inviting approximately 30 high school refugee students to UMBC, giving them a tour, teaching them about college, cooking tofu stir-fry with Bragg seasoning for lunch, and playing soccer with them. Other meals during the week consisted of vegan black bean burritos, spaghetti with mock meatballs, Tofurky sandwiches, PB&Js, and much more.

TEAR is now in its third year, and stronger than ever. Last year, I extended the trip and added more volunteering. Now, we spend an extra day organizing and cleaning the IRC donation shop; we also spend a day volunteering at RYP with high school students from Patterson High School in Baltimore. The trip is still all vegan, and I will be leading it again this year.

Yasmin wrote this article while doing a summer internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.