LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – Oceans and thousands of miles separate Louisville from war-torn countries. Those borders often become barriers, keeping refugee camps out of sight and out of mind. It's a mentality the eighth graders at J. Graham Brown School are working to change.

"It started with reading a book during the summer on refugees,” teacher Valerie Jillson said.

A semester-long project took the lesson from paper to practice.

"This is working, kids are learning, and it's an authentic experience,” Jillson said. “This is all part of our deeper learning push and our project-based learning push. It puts all of the ownership in the hands of the students. So, they’re responsible for what they’re learning. It’s up to them to put all of this together. I was really just the facilitator of the process, and they did all of the heavy lifting.”

The final phase of the project happened Friday. The class transformed the park next door into a mock refugee camp for every grade to go through.

"It's teaching them the questions and the struggles they go through every day,” eighth-grader Jade Podbelsek said.
There were twelve tents set up around the park. Each one was dedicated to a different aspect of life away from everything familiar.

"There's the clinic. There's a market. There's the community center and a bank. There's a school. There’s even a black market to make the refugee experience more real because everything goes on in a camp, and we’re just trying to make it as real as possible,” Podbelsek said. "Each tent has a challenge that the refugees have to pass, and they'll get a stamp on their card. If they go to the black market, they'll have to redo all of those just like a real refugee would to get to a new host country.”

Before this year, the refugee crisis for many students seemed as foreign as the countries where it's happening.

"As a young child, I sometimes don't understand how much they go through, but learning specifically what they go through has really opened my eyes,” eighth-grader Kyla Martin said.

Lesson by lesson, the connection and concern has grown deeper.

"It's crazy. It just seems so unreal that they have to go through these hardships all of the time. It's so sad that a human has to go through that,” Podbelsek said.

That compassion for others is something this class hopes each and every student takes with them after this experience.

"I hope when they leave, they have a very empathetic and understanding view of what a refugee goes through day by day and how hard it is to be reassigned to a country after you've had to leave yours,” eighth-grader Connor Kurtz said. “I think it makes me a lot more empathetic, and I think it gives me a more broadened view of what people have to go through in the real world instead of just a small bubble like our school.”

The students are also raising money to get a well for a school in Sudan. Friday morning, they walked from their building to the Big Four Bridge and back and carried one-gallon jugs of water with them to help get funding for that part of the project.