PhD student Michelle Lam is using a board game to promote empathy and understanding of the refugee experience in Canada. An experienced English as an Additional Language teacher who married into a family of former refugees, her doctoral research explores refugee language learning in rural areas of Manitoba.

The idea for Michelle Lam’s board game Refugee Journeys: Identity, Intersectionality, and Integration, started with a class presentation. Wanting to skip the traditional PowerPoint method, she instead chose a more creative way to put her classmates “in the shoes of a refugee”. The first version of the game was basic (designed on Microsoft Word and printed out on Michelle’s home printer), but her classmates and professor immediately saw its potential. The game acts as a participatory way to mobilize academic knowledge, to explore relevant policies, and to take players on a journey complete with a new identity and a variety of experiences. People often think that the refugee journey ends when after arriving from Canada, but in Michelle’s game, “the point of arrival in Canada is just the beginning”.

To play the game, each player gets an identity card which lists age, gender, family status, type of refugee, health, housing, sexuality, and other identity markers. “The game is a bit like Snakes and Ladders – you move through the game and either advance forward or go back, depending on what experience cards you draw.” Taken from a combination of scholarly research, media sources and personal experience, Michelle’s experience cards are things like “You are a 70-year old grandmother and you want to learn English, but the class topic is always about finding a job – move back two spaces.”; “You were sponsored to a rural area, but don’t have any transportation. You always have to ask for rides – move back one space.”; or positive experiences, such as “Your child joined a club at school and is making friends. Move forward one space”.

One of Michelle’s favourite memories of using the game was when one woman landed on a space that said, “Are you male? Move ahead two spaces.” Her identity card listed her as female, and she got upset, asking why men got to move forward faster. This launched the group into a great discussion about gender and identity and discrimination. “This is what I designed the game to do,” Michelle explains, “to help people engage with these issues in a personal way, and to experience what it is like to integrate into a new place”.

Refugee Journeys has since been used with pre-service teachers, high school students, graduate level students, teachers and researchers and is now available online. Michelle has presented the game at WestCAST 2018 conference and Metropolis conference; now she intends to examine its effectiveness in increasing knowledge of policy and empathy for refugee newcomers.

As an EAL teacher and as someone married into a family of former refugees, Michelle has heard plenty of stories about discrimination and the experiences of integrating into a new home. Michelle chose to pursue a PhD at the University of Manitoba because the research being undertaken by her supervisors, Dr. Clea Schmidt (Education) and Dr. Lori Wilkinson (Sociology), aligned with her research interests. Her dissertation will focus on how refugees integrate and learn language in rural areas, where they often lack transportation or access to settlement services.

What advice does Michelle have about creating a welcoming community for newcomers to Canada?

“I hope that people are able to listen well to the experiences of others before forming their own conclusions […] Listening, learning, and speaking out against discrimination if you encounter it are good places to start.”

Want to be featured in an upcoming edition of Profiles? Visit our page to learn more, or email

Profiles: Michelle Lam
Tagged on: