It’s been said that the current Refugee Crisis is the largest displacement of global citizens in modern times. But it’s hard to fully grasp how massive the exodus truly is without consistent visual confirmation and first-hand reports of how frightening this epidemic has grown over the last four years. And we all know how powerful an image can truly be.
The photograph of the young Syrian boy as he laid lifeless on the beaches of Turkey rocked the world in September 2015. His name was Alan Kurdi. He was only 3 years old. Some might say that photo became the turning point in the conversation about the Refugee Crisis. Others, like the child’s father, feel otherwise. That’s why Médecins Sans Frontières decided to do their part to keep the conversation going and created the traveling exhibit “Forced From Home,” an interactive tour through the experiences of today’s refugees and what is truly at stake at every stage of this crisis.
The free exhibition is currently making its way around the United States, but it began its journey in Queens in mid-September. Befittingly, the kickoff for the event coincided with the United Nations conference taking place in Midtown Manhattan to address the political, if not economic, reality of solving the Refugee Crisis. But MSF’s (Doctors Without Borders, for us favoring the English translation) goal is not to discuss the political, economic or social realities of the crisis. They’re only interested in the human face of it and asking others to join them in understanding how 65 million people came to live in detention centers, prefabricated housing, makeshift tents and discarded mattresses on the streets of Europe, Asia and Central America in the wake of an economic recovery that never arrived at their shores.
I ventured out to Manhattan last week to see the exhibit for myself at the Battery Park Esplanade. There, I was a part of a group led by a friendly, gravely voiced MSF tour guide named Joe, who not only walked us through the stages of displacement for millions of refugees, he also shared his own stories of working in Tanzania with thousands of Burundians seeking asylum as their nation teeters on the edge of civil war. After our initial introduction to who MSF is and how they came to be, Joe was quick to assure us that every refugee’s journey is different, and throughout the tour, he made it clear, not one of them is in this situation because of their own wrongdoing, mistakes or failure to explore other options in their homeland.
Now I’ve supported Médecins Sans Frontières for years in my own nominal way, so I was aware of their work in nations all over the world, well before the Refugee Crisis reached its tipping point. But if there’s anything I take with me after visiting the “Forced From Home” exhibit, it’s that Joe and all the doctors, logisticians, volunteers and administration staff must have an emotional fortitude that I clearly wasn’t born with. The exhibition is a simulation, nothing more. It asks us to bear witness to the extreme realities of the life of a refugee. Not just the children. Not just the women. Not just the Syrians. It’s a hard pill to swallow, and it’s one each and every member of MSF must swallow every day in order improve the lives of desperate people in an impossible situation. I couldn’t be more humbled by their work, their strength or their generosity. Why? Because this is what I learned…
- 65 million people (that’s equal to the population of the UK) are a part of the Refugee Crisis, but 45 million of them are internally displaced. Internally displaced persons (IDP) are those who haven’t left their own countries. They’re attempting to leave, but are being stopped at the borders and denied permission to cross.
- Roughly 3,700 refugees drowned in 2015 trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. As of September 2016, another 3,000 have drowned.
- The Refugee Crisis is not only taking place in Africa, but also the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Central America, affecting the DRC, Nigeria, Chad, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Syria, Burundi, Eritrea, and more. “Forced From Home” focuses the exhibit on just five countries to give you a greater understanding of the size of this migration: South Sudan, Burundi, Syria, Honduras and Turkey.
- The #1 cause of death for refugees in Central America trying to make their way north to the US and Canada? Falling from the sides and tops of railcars as they try to ride on the trains heading north to the next destination — the majority of them are children.
- MSF is an expert in remaining neutral, but with a human face, it’s hard not to criticize those in charge of coping with the crisis. In my personal opinion, Germany seems to be doing the best with getting people in through the intake centers, finding them stable shelter and helping them rebuild. Greece keeps everyone in detention areas. The streets of Paris have refugees living on mattresses on the sidewalk. Kenya is coping the best it can with the largest refugee camp in the world, but …
- Refugees are living in tent cities that range in materials made from discarded tarps and trash bags to proper custom tents designed to hold an entire family. Often camping tents made for a family of 5 are housing up to 4 families of 4 or 5 members each.
- After watching the initial video at the beginning of our tour, we were asked to pick 5 items (represented by plastic cards with images on them) to carry with us should we find ourselves being evacuated at that moment. Some of the items you could choose to bring were money, water, jewelry, a smartphone, shoes, your pets, a guitar and a wheelchair. I picked my passport, medicine, clothes, personal photos (sans frames) and money. At various stations throughout the exhibit, we were asked to give up one of our possessions, either as payment to move forward to the next leg of our journey or as a consequence of our situation. By the end, you were left with one item.
- The boats, rafts and dinghies that thousands of people are using to risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea are organized by unscrupulous con artists who demand payment in the form of anything the refugees are carrying. The boats — most of them barely seaworthy — are driven within a 4 or 5 miles of the shore and the boat “captains” claim to have run out of gas, then abandon ship to join their cohorts on a nearby speedboat and leave the refugees there to either wait to be picked up by a passing MSF ship or Good Samaritan or risk swimming to European shores one by one. Many of the refugees are from landlocked countries and cannot swim.
- 40% of MSF members are logisticians. As you move through the tour, you begin to understand why. It takes a massive logistical effort to coordinate everything you see in the intake centers at multiple locations in every country they’ve set up facilities. Then, most of those intake centers move around the country to other points of entry, staying mobile to help as many people as possible.
- Throughout the exhibit, you move from the Dome where you watch a short video with commentary from actual refugees and other MSF members → Boat simulation → Refugee vs Internally Displaced Person holding station → Water, Food & Sanitation station → Med Tent (Cholera) → Med Tent (General Medical Care/Psych Evaluation) → Family Tents. In just over an hour, you will get a small glimpse of the life of a refugee today. And unless you’re made of some extraordinary mettle, you will not walk away viewing the Refugee Crisis the same way as when you arrived.
- The largest IDP/Refugee camp in the world is in Kenya. The country is preparing to close it, and no one at MSF knows what will come of the people who are there now.
- As you move throughout the exhibit, you realize the foolhardy choices you made in choosing your 5 items, even in an impossible situation where every choice is a desperate one. I commented as I gave up my passport to the volunteer holding the wooden bin collecting our plastic cards that it made no sense to keep a passport since no one will treat me any differently no matter what the passport says or where I end up, and the volunteer replied, “That’s perhaps the most honest statement I’ve heard all day.”
- Sexual violence is the #1 daily tragedy befalling families trapped in the camps.
- According to Joe, the Cholera Tent is a proverbial hell. He only stayed in one for 15 seconds before leaving. The real heroes in MSF in his mind are the sprayers and cleaners with their canisters of bleach and mops, walking through the tent all day trying to keep the space as sterile as possible. The average cholera patient has a 15% chance of survival.
- At the General Med Tent, we learned the story of Ange, a 17-year-old Burundian woman who witnessed her father being killed for opposing the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza. There was a 15-year-old girl on the tour with her father, so it made the tale even more poignant in that moment. Joe met Ange and recalls when she arrived at the intake center. You can tell that he’s still shaken by her journey, and although it isn’t over, it may not have the happy ending we all hope for.
- Refugees and IDPs are often hired to help MSF inside the camps. They’re paid to be translators and seek out those in the camps who need medical attention, encouraging them to visit the med stations for help. They also help build new tents and structures for water & waste stations, pass out mosquito nets, etc. Your donations to MSF help provide for these jobs, and gives many refugees a sense of dignity as they try to earn a wage for their families, improve their situations, and hopefully, leave the intake centers quicker by their own choosing.
- At the end of the tour, I only had my personal photos left with me. After first giving up my clothes (thinking I could survive with only what I was wearing), passport (served no purpose in the grand scheme of the journey), money (figured I would’ve spent it all on water, food and to get as far as I could), and medicine (because it was literally the only thing I had left that I could probably sell for profit), I only had the images of my family to remind me of the life I once had and keep me going when I’m sure I would be teetering on giving up. Sentimental and impractical I know, but you’d be amazed how much hope can feed you when your soul has nothing else. A reality I think our tour guide has seen first hand and up close.
I know that’s a lot to detail to take in, but I honestly left a lot out as the exhibit is a wealth of information about an experience none of us can truly know without visiting an intake center ourselves. One of the missions of MSF is to bear witness, that is to provide evidence of what they see in the field and share it with the world. With no political agenda of their own, many members of MSF risk life and limb to help bring quarter to those desperate, ill and afraid.
With the “Forced From Home” exhibit, MSF intends to spread the truth about the Refugee Crisis. They know that the face of the epidemic goes beyond the occasional photo of a tragic drowning or the stunned child who manages to live through yet another airstrike. MSF members are in the thick of it every day on 4 continents, seeing it up close and personal. There’s no propaganda. There’s no hidden agenda. Webinars, conference calls, newsletters and social media updates help communicate the gravity of the Refugee Crisis, but “Forced From Home” goes a step further, inviting activism, awareness and exhibition into the same space for a cause bigger than many of us can comprehend.
Of everything I learned during my tour of “Forced From Home,” two things really stayed with me as I left the Esplanade. The first was Joe. Our intrepid tour guide from Long Island was not only the quintessential New Yorker sharing the truth in a relatable, yet insightful way, but he was a great representation of MSF itself. He’s not a doctor. He’s not a refugee himself. He’s just a guy from LI who understand that he — in his own words — “won the genetic lottery” and nothing more. Those living in the camps aren’t being punished for a crime. They didn’t make bad life decisions. They were simply born in a nation at a time in history where their lives were in more danger staying put than leaving with only what they could carry. He even made a point to acknowledge that other than the Indigenous people of the U.S. and those who were forcibly relocated here to work as slaves, we live in a country every day that celebrates the bravery, sacrifice and ingenuity of immigrants as their ancestors. So why are we working so hard to deny that same perspective of those seeking sanctuary today?
The second thing that stayed with me was how I felt as I left the exhibition. I walked into “Forced From Home” with the pride of knowing I was someone who was no stranger to the realities of the Refugee Crisis. I read the email and hard copy newsletters MSF sends me. I read the articles published by journalists and bloggers. I support mixed-media artist Ai WeiWei‘s installations calling attention to the scope of the ongoing tragedy. I’ve even added the upcoming series “Filming At The Borders: Migrating to Europe Today” at Columbia Maison Française to my calendar. In the end, it all pales in comparison to what “Forced From Home” accomplished in 90 minutes.
I can applaud everything I saw members of MSF accomplishing at this amazing exhibit and share what I learned, but trust me, “Forced From Home” is something that can only be fully appreciated first hand. I know the exhibition isn’t traveling to every major city in the U.S., but if it does come your way, I ask that you take the time — just 90 minutes of your day — to walk through the interactive tour. Learn from those who have witnessed the lives of refugees up close during this time of need. You won’t be asked to make a donation. You won’t be asked tell a friend. You won’t be asked to write a 2,500-word blog post about your experience. You’ll only be asked to open your mind and see everything you’re not being told through mainstream media, social media and word of mouth. You’ll be asked to simply join others and bear witness to those who have been forced from home.