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Doctors Without Borders Washington Exhibit Explores Refugee Plight


Each visitor has a minute to pick just five items to take on their mock-refugee journey. Choices include cards representing water, shoes, a fishing pole, medicine, blankets and other more sentimental items, like family photos.

"Connectivity, identification ..." a woman mumbles to herself, adding a cellphone and passport to her collection.

Another woman picks a picture of two animals, saying she would need companions on the journey.

Jane, a tour guide and former nurse with Doctors Without Borders, describes a typical medical tent at a refugee camp at the Forced From Home display in Washington, D.C. (B. Allen/VOA)

Jane, a tour guide and former nurse with Doctors Without Borders, describes a typical medical tent at a refugee camp at the Forced From Home display in Washington, D.C. (B. Allen/VOA)

"Are those pets or food?" asks Sarah, the tour guide, as she begins to explain just how difficult the choices can be for people fleeing their homes.

The Forced from Home exhibit on the National Mall near the Washington Monument is a seemingly makeshift collection of tents, barricades, and photos of people fleeing their homes. But the display, sponsored by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has a serious purpose: giving D.C. residents and tourists a small understanding of what it is like to be a refugee.

"Do you have any idea how many people in the world have been forced from home?" Sarah asks her group.

Some 65 million people are currently fleeing conflict and persecution, according to MSF.

Making hard choices

Many of the tour groups are students on organized visits from their schools. But the groups also include friends and supporters of MSF, D.C. residents, and tourists drawn in after visiting the Washington museums.

Barbed wire and chain link fences dot the National Mall in Washington, D.C., at the Forced From Home interactive display by Doctors Without Borders. (B. Allen/VOA)

Barbed wire and chain link fences dot the National Mall in Washington, D.C., at the Forced From Home interactive display by Doctors Without Borders. (B. Allen/VOA)

At the beginning of the journey, visitors assume the identity of a refugee or displaced person. They learn about the events that force people to leave their homes, including conflicts in Burundi, Mexico, Somalia, Syria and of course, South Sudan.

"In 2014, the U.N. stopped counting the number of civilians dead [in Syria]," Sarah tells her group. "They were at 400,000."

Africa Stewart, an obstetrician gynecologist who has worked in South Sudan for MSF, says the exhibition is designed to bring attention and awareness to the global refugee and migrant crisis. But she says unless you have lived through it, it is really difficult to capture that fear of running for your life.

“We hear people telling us that the key to getting away is looking like you are not trying to get away so that your enemies do not know that you have left,” Stewart said. “So packing things in the fold of your gowns, trying to look like you are going to the market, taking your smaller children and not necessarily taking the older children because you want to look like you are not going anywhere.”

One D.C. resident leaves her stroller at registration and carries her 4-month-old baby through the hour-long tour.

"I thought it would be realistic this way," she says.

As the "refugees" move from station to station, they have to make choices: Do they pay for their journey with their remaining medicine, water, food or blankets?

Early in the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to sit in a rubber raft, designed to hold seven people. Sixteen people on the tour fit snugly in the raft, while Sarah explained that the boat would carry as many as 60 people across the Mediterranean Sea.

A raft on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. helps demonstrate the plight of refugees and displaced people must endure to escape war and persecution. (B. Allen/VOA)

A raft on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. helps demonstrate the plight of refugees and displaced people must endure to escape war and persecution. (B. Allen/VOA)

"Many people who take this journey die of asphyxiation," she says.

The tour continues, showing markets, mosquito nets, and various types of tents. "Refugee," "asylum seeker" or "internally displaced" is written on the identity card given to each of the visitors. That identification determines what kind of accommodation each person would get.

Bearing witness

Every tour guide has his or her own story. Sarah first deployed to the Central African Republic before working in Gaza and in France, where she's from. To humanize some of the incomprehensibly large statistics and death tolls, Sarah told a story of some of the challenges she faced, including whether to separate a mother suffering from psychosis from her breastfeeding newborn.

Forced From Home uses interactive media, such as this 360-degree video, to depict the humanitarian work being done by Doctors Without Borders. (B. Allen/VOA)

Forced From Home uses interactive media, such as this 360-degree video, to depict the humanitarian work being done by Doctors Without Borders. (B. Allen/VOA)

"We need to raise awareness. We need to bear witness," says Chris Tsarra of MSF. "We need to bring back the voices from the field and share our experiences."

By the end of the tour, only one of five items visitors took with them remains in their possession.

"Imagine, all you have to start your new life with is this, this one item," Sarah says. For some, that's their passport. For others it's a blanket, or some cash.

The exhibit attempts to create a connection between refugees and Americans, who may see little reason to care about the global refugee crisis.

"They can just pretend that it's far away and not that big of a deal," says Katherine Baer, a visitor on the tour. "And especially if they don't see anybody responding to it: the politicians, the leaders. They can easily ignore it."

The exhibit started in New York City, and will travel on to Boston and Philadelphia.

VOA's South Sudan project contributed to this report

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