5 Questions with Matt

Johanna Reynolds took the time to sit down with Matt Stevens, LLST’s Director and design lead. They chat about Matt’s history, why he formed LLST, and why simulations are important.

Lessons Learned Simulations & Training (LLST) was founded in 2018 after you spent more than 10 years working with refugee and migrants, primarily in the Middle East. Tell us a bit about the work that you did there.

Yes, I spent quite a few years in the Middle East. I was quite lucky, because almost all of the work I did there allowed me to spend time getting to know refugees and local residents well. That’s not the usual experience humanitarian workers have! I served as a Project Director, then Country Director for a small INGO in Amman, Jordan, primarily managing an online higher education project for refugees and Jordanians. It was a great office to work in—I interacted directly with our students every day, learning about the difficulties and rewards they experienced in their lives. There were lots of interesting reasons why people came to our program—very rarely for the reasons we expected. It was always a challenge to flex the “humanitarian system” in ways to adapt our projects to deliver what people actually wanted.

How did you start working with refugees?

My first experience working with refugees was in Cairo. In 2007 and 2008, Iraqis began to arrive there very quietly—the humanitarian world had been prepared for people to flee the 2003 invasion, but there were actually very few people displaced internationally at that time. People didn’t start to leave until local conflicts between Shi’a and Sunni groups started years later. It was a “silent crisis”: Iraqis just started to pick up and leave home, settling in cities around the region, without the usual media attention that mass displacement draws. Then, suddenly, we had these large communities of urban-based displaced Iraqis, and the humanitarian regime made the bold choice of serving them in place rather than trying to encourage them to move into camps.

I found myself managing a communications campaign for Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond, an Oxford prof and sort of a legend in the forced migration studies community. My job was to interview Iraqis living in Cairo, learning their stories—their motivations and goals, reasons for coming to Egypt, and hopes for the future—producing source material short stories that media outlets could easily pick up and pass on. We convinced major US newspapers, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and more to publish on the crisis. That experience kind of set the scene for everything that came afterward.

In your opinion, what is unique about the humanitarian response experience in urban refugee contexts, such as Jordan?

That “accidental” urban response set a humanitarian precedent across the Middle East that, as far as I know, doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world: when people are displaced, they are allowed to live where they choose. Invariably, the vast majority of people choose cities, towns, or other communities rather than managed and controlled camps. The length and size of the Syrian response has strained that precedent to the breaking point, unfortunately, but many still put huge amounts of effort into to living and working outside the camps. Urban responses are challenging—the logistics are a challenge, and urban communities are extremely difficult to assess, monitor, and serve. But they are also a result of people doing what they feel is best for themselves and their families, given the circumstances. Humanitarian agencies have to ask themselves: are we here to make our own lives easier, or the lives of the people we are here to support?

A unique component of LLST’s work is offering humanitarian training which emphasizes simulations and interactive learning tools. What are some of the benefits of simulation-based learning as a teaching tool, especially in this context?

Simulations are completely unique teaching tools that solidify learning like nothing else. You can sit through a lecture and learn a lot of facts—that humanitarian work is difficult, or that social and political dynamics in refugee response is complicated—but you won’t ever really understand why until you start to actually interact with a system, to attempt to push it in certain ways and see how it responds. Typically, humanitarian workers have to complete that part of their training on the job. That’s really unfortunate, because we have the tools to replicate systems in the classroom—they’re called simulations! We learn best through mistakes and real mistakes hurt real people. Simulated mistakes are much better.

Educational simulations are an increasingly common tool, but they’re still not widely known in the humanitarian world. So where did your interest in educational simulations come from?

Before my most recent deployment to the Middle East, I was lucky enough to participate in a semester-long course at McGill University which featured a simulation capstone. This was designed and facilitated by one of the great masters of humanitarian simulation, Prof. Rex Brynen (who documents his work on the blog PaxSims). That simulation is delivered annually, involves 150 students and runs twelve hours a day for a whole week—Rex likes to say he gets CCed on more than 10,000 emails over the course of the week. I vividly remember negotiating a (simulated) emergency evacuation of displaced people from an active warzone. We had thought of everything—what types of vehicles would be used, down to how many cars equipped with winches were to be in each (simulated) convoy of buses. Before mobilizing, we had been assured by (simulated) rebel groups that the roads were being de-mined and would be clear before the convoy arrived. At the last minute, news came through that the rebels had been distracted by (simulated) fighting in the area and had not removed the mines on the road—the sheer panic I felt in scrambling to stop the convoy before it left the area will never leave me. All of this was simulated, of course—except for the panic. After the simulation was finished, I had the rebel leaders show me how the fighting worked. I couldn’t believe what they showed me. There was a whole set of systems they were interacting with which I had never seen. More than that, I never suspected the systems existed. No wonder these guys weren’t interested in de-mining the road—they were pursuing their own goals to secure their own goals (including simulated survival). For me, there was nothing more important than getting this convoy out of the country. For them, the civil war was hanging in the balance, and I had no idea.

For years afterward, I watched myself and others bumble through urban refugee response, making the same sort of mistakes I had committed in the simulation. Every time, I asked myself, “why don’t we have that sort of training for the work that we do?” Not just a simulated work-through of a policy checklist, where you “win” when you tick all the boxes in the manual—but an actual model that helps us understand goals and motivations of all sorts of stakeholders. Well, now we have one!

What training opportunities are available with LLST in the near future?

We are planning to run our next course in Ottawa in July 2019. There’s a good chance we’ll host a stand-alone run of the simulation which “The Day My Life Froze” is built around, as well. Keep watching the blog for more information!

What is a fun, little known fact about Matthew R. Stevens to share with our readers?

After our last stint in Jordan, the Lessons Learned team brought two cats back with us to Canada. They’re of some sort of Turkish descent, and we love them to bits, but goodness they’re terrible at being cats. They can’t jump very high, they’re not very clever, and they’re really clumsy and fall off of things all the time. I keep telling them they need to start contributing around the office, but so far, no dice. They still keep beating me out for the “employee of the month” award, though. I think the jury is biased.

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