Forced from Home: A refugee story, as told by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders)

“There’s an African proverb: ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,” says Luella Smith, a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) physician and staff member who serves as our tour guide today at the “Forced from Home: Stories of Displacement Around the Globe” exhibit in Manhattan. The exhibit’s goal: to simulate the refugee crisis and illuminate the struggles that migrants face as they’re caught in a violent crossfire between warring parties – the elephants.

Upon checking in to the exhibit, both my friend, Xin, and I are handed notecards bearing the name of a country and an individual’s status, such as Honduras – refugee, or Syria – IDP (internally displaced person). I am an IDP from South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, but also one that has been mercilessly wracked by a violent internal war since its newfound independence. Xin is a refugee from Honduras. For 45 minutes, we’ll imagine what it must be like – as best as one can while standing on a boardwalk along the Hudson River – to live in these refugees or IDPs’ shoes as if they were our own, migrating in dangerous, unimaginable conditions.

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Luella is a petite Filipino woman from Canada and sports a pink windbreaker and short, gray bob. Throughout the course of our tour, I realize that despite her non-threatening demeanor, Luella is perhaps one of the most badass people I’ve ever met in my life. Luella has been a physician since 1973, and has served in – and sometimes led – at least ten MSF field missions across the world, most recently in Libya.

She also set up a hospital in an old warehouse in Aleppo, Syria, a city which has lately been making headlines as more doctors flee the city due to deadly airstrikes, leaving more wounded and dead Syrian civilians in their wake. “My only lament was that the day I left [Syria], they opened the hospital,” says Luella. She wasn’t directly threatened by ISIS, but heard stories that when ISIS came into certain villages, MSF staff had to disperse.

Before we start the tour, Luella shares a little history about MSF. MSF is an international humanitarian aid relief organization that was founded in 1971 by French doctors to provide medical care to displaced peoples across the globe. They have a high regard for medical ethics, impartiality, independence, bearing witness, accountability and neutrality – their guiding principles, one could say.. MSF operates in 60-70 countries and maintains 35,000 staff around the world. 90% of the staff are locals, and Luella says, that local support is one of the reasons MSF is so good at what it does.

The term “refugee crisis” has been bandied about a lot, but what does that really mean? Luella illuminates this for us in some startling statistics: there are currently 63.5 million displaced people in the world (the same as the population of California and Texas).

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Luella, our tour guide, and my friend, Xin, while touring the exhibit.

Speaking of refugees, Luella says that many of them are “doctors, lawyers and nurses, same as any of us [here in the U.S], but many have been bombed.” And with that sobering note, she ushers us into a large, white, tented dome to start the tour. A video is projected in a panorama around us on the dome walls, and we fall silent as refugees begin speaking in camps in Tanzania and Burundi. Muddy forests and endless rows of tent camps, as far as the eye can see, appear. In one of the final moments of the video, an immigrant sitting with his family chillingly recaps: “[The] journey has been extremely difficult. It fills me with fear.”

As I exit the tent, a drop of water spills over through a crack into tent. It’s eerie – for a second, I feel as if I’m in the damp refugee camps that we saw in the video as rain threatens to spill overhead.

I see tall posters of refugee and IDP encampments from South Sudan, Burundi, Lebanon, Syria, Honduras and other countries. Behind the posters are placards of items that we may need along our migrant journey, ranging from entertainment to basic necessities. I head to the South Sudan poster. Luella tells us that we have fifteen seconds to grab the five earthly possessions we think we’ll need for our upcoming journey, however long or short it may be.

Without thinking, I grab placards bearing a bottle of pills, blankets, water, and a passport. Feeling sentimental, I also grab family photos. I feel rushed, thinking that I made an error. Should I have taken the clothes instead of the photos? What about money? Luella stresses that the exercise is supposed to highlight what our priorities would be if we were refugees – and they oftentimes differ from person to person. Xin’s selections were mostly similar, but she has the foresight to grab a cell phone.

We proceed to our first stop on the physical tour, which is a small, white raft. This fragile boat is meant for 8-10 people, but is often crammed with 80 refugees on the journeys across the Mediterranean. It’s equipped only with a water tank and small paddle. Luella asks: would you cross the ocean in this?

The sea journey could be as short as seven hours – going from Turkey to Greece – or many, many more if you are crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa. As we sit down in the raft, I could hardly imagine any place to store water on this boat, let alone any personal possessions. We’re told that the life jackets refugees receive on these rafts are often fake, so if the boat began to sink, you were out of luck. Starvation, dehydration and suffocation are all real dangers aboard these cramped dinghies. So far, there have been 30,000 deaths aboard boats like these in 2016, though MSF assisted 23,000 people to safety in 2015.

As we leave the dinghy, Luella tells us that we have to give up one of our chosen items. We’ll have to do this at each stage of the “journey.” Sentimentality quickly goes out the window – I give up the family photos. And then we’re on to the second stop, where I reluctantly relinquish the blankets, thinking how easily I get cold.

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At the second stop, we break down the differences between IDPs and refugees. Refugees are fleeing from one country to another. They don’t always have legal status when they enter another country. IDPs have left their homes but are displaced within their own countries, oftentimes under the regime of a government that is persecuting them, like the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. So both groups present different challenges. Organizations like the International Organization for Migration exist in theory to help migrants, but the reality is they oftentimes don’t have boots on the ground to make much difference.

And then we’re on our way to the third stop, where discuss basic necessities and hygiene requirements in camps. There’s a market table set up with items like grains, cell phones, toys and most crucial of all: water. Xin and I circle around a large water tank, known as a bladder. Someone has to fill up the bladder. Usually, the burden falls on women and children. Luella says from experience in Darfur that next to the bladders, there was always a long line up of “gerry cans and children.”

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A sample market table at the exhibit, with pulses, toys and water tins.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 2 gallons of water per person per day. In refugee camps, sometimes an entire family has not much more than this much to bathe, drink, cook and clean. We each take turns lifting a 2 gallon jug – it seems wholly inadequate to serve a family of four. By contrast: the average person in U.S. uses 90 gallons per day.

We view a sample latrine with a squat toilet, or two raised pads for you to place feet on while you squat and take care of business. I’m familiar with this rustic amenity, having been to India, but it seems far more primitive in context of already resource-deprived refugee camps. We also see a bleak, round device resembling an oil barrel – an incinerator to burn waste. I can only imagine the overwhelming smell of human bodies and waste.

Luella points out that smell is the only thing sense that this tour cannot replicate. Well, maybe sound too. It’s one thing to imagine roaring waves or a child’s screams as you cross the Atlantic, but I imagine that the reality is totally different.

Here, I part with another item: a bottle of pills. Hopefully, at this stage in my journey, I can get my medicine elsewhere.

At the fourth stop, we visualize the challenges of medical treatment in refugee encampments. Luella asks what medical concerns refugees face in camps, and they’re no-brainers: water usage, poor hygiene and overcrowding.

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But a greater menace is cholera. MSF sets up a replica cholera treatment center to bring home the reality of disease for Americans who will likely never have the misfortune to experience it. The treatment center contains simple wooden beds with holes in middle for patients to defecate into buckets underneath. Orange gloves and smaller buckets for washing are affixed to each bed. Luella dealt with cholera as a doctor on an MSF mission in Haiti. She says, remarkably, that Haiti never had cholera outbreak before 2010 earthquake, but due to foreign aid workers and soldiers, the country became a hotspot for the disease.

The worst thing we learn about though is child malnutrition. MSF doctors screen for malnutrition by measuring a multi-colored paper band around a child’s upper arm. Red indicates the child is dying of starvation. Luella demonstrates what it would look like if a child measured in the red; the loop the band forms is shockingly small, like measuring a six-month infant’s arm. We in the U.S. think of malnutrition and imagine swollen bellies, but this is something different altogether. The treatment: a hearty dose of therapeutic milk and some unpleasant-sounding paste called “Plumpy Nut.’

Oh, and what do I give up at this station? Water. Hopefully, I have access to safe drinking water now…but as the simulation has shown, that’s far from assured.

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A makeshift tent showing what a rudimentary refugee shelter might look like.

We make our way to the fifth and last stop on the physical tour, where we view temporary shelters and homes for refugees. One tent stands out to me: it’s a beautiful thing, adorned with simple flowery sheets and Persian-style rugs. It’s supposedly built for 2-3 families – though I would say putting more than five people in the tent would be a stretch Luella leaves us with one keen observation from her experience: people tend to keep their tents spotless. They take great pride in these shelters, however small and ramshackle. “This is their home,” she says.

Luella also points to pictures of a makeshift refugee camp surrounded by mud and refuse in Grande-Synthe, France. In the end, Luella tells us frankly, but not unkindly, no one wants these refugees, and they’re stuck in the middle of their journey to England. They can’t go back or forward. (Note: the camp closed earlier this fall after French authorities razed it to the ground, leaving many migrants still in limbo.)

And what is the very last object that I give up? My passport. I hold onto that thing for dear life until the very end. Because I know that, even as a fictional refugee, that passport could make the difference in moving me forward to a safe place or sending me back to a place of no return.

Before we move on to the optional virtual reality tent, we stop to chat with Luella for a few minutes. She feels mixed emotions whenever she leaves a mission, because she has a home in Canada, but then has to leave behind the refugees – the people who have had a tremendous impact on her life. Her parting words about her work as an MSF volunteer: “We’re there to pick up the pieces. Or we try to.”

We warmly bid Luella farewell, and head into a large white tent where people sit dumbly on stools, with black goggles wrapped around their heads, some of then spinning around. A young male volunteer shows us how to use the headsets. We can rotate on the stool to view the video in 360 degrees. “Just don’t stand up,” he says. “Some people become nauseous.” Right-o.

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The headset for the virtual reality or ‘360’ degree video.

This is my first time using virtual reality, and it’s totally mind-boggling. A red cursor appears on the screen, and I have to tilt my head to move the cursor around the screen. I select the first video and see a woman in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Her name is Ange. Sitting around a cooking fire as children amble around her, Ange talks about her harrowing experience fleeing Burundi, which is approaching a state of civil war as the government violently suppresses protests against the election of President Pierre Nkurunziza to his third term to office.

I rotate on the stool and see other refugees in the background carrying water though the muddy dirt roads of the camp. I feel as if I’m standing right there alongside them, though it’s hard to focus on Ange’s words at times though because I’m so distracted spinning around.

I watch a second video featuring a woman in the Bekaa Valley refugee camp in Lebanon. She fled Syria with her family, and was supporting her children by working with MSF in the camp. Back in Syria, they always heard stories of refugees and wars happening in other countries on the news, and felt pity. “We never thought we’d be in a war.” Hearing her words…it hits home the concept of privilege, and how easily war strips away that entitled sense of security.

At the end of the video, clothes swing on a line in the wind. While this clip plays, a breeze blows into the tent where I’m sitting. For a long moment, I get the haunting impression of being in the Bekaa Valley, just one refugee or IDP among millions in a world, to which, I am utterly invisible.

—–

 With the worldwide refugee crisis at an all-time high – there are more displaced people now than there have been since World War II – and xenophobic rhetoric reaching alarming levels, there is no better time for individuals to educate themselves on the refugee crisis than now. To learn more about the exhibit, visit ForcedfromHome.com. P.S. – Holiday shopping tip: if you buy items on smile.amazon.com, and select ‘Doctors without Borders,’ a portion of your purchase will be donated to the organization.

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