Can you be a refugee for an hour?
No, of course not. But this interactive tour presents a taste of the refugee experience. Sixty-five million people have fled unspeakable danger and violence at home, only to be met by hostility from the so-called civilized world, which should be guided only by compassion. The great humanitarian organization Medicins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders sends volunteers to provide medical care to refugees in some of the world’s most troubled and dangerous places. They toured six western cities with this remarkable interactive exhibition. I caught them at their final stop in Santa Monica. Please take a few minutes to look at this report and rflect on the reality it presents. Then visit their website. Maybe chip in a few bucks. They are member-supported. No government support at all.
Station 1 – Introduction
We meet our guide, John, an MSF nurse working in Burundi refugee camps.
I use the term “refugee,” which refers to people who have fled their country, but I’m also talking about internally displaced people, who are refugees within their own countries.
Each tour member is given a card indicating status and country of origin. I am an asylum seeker from Afghanistan.
Station 3 – Getting Ready To Flee
We assemble at our respective countries. John points to a photo of refugees fleeing. “Do you notice anything in this picture?” he asks. And he points to the figure of a woman. The photographer has caught her in flight. Neither foot is touching the ground. These people are getting the hell out of Dodge!
“OK…they are coming for you. You have to run. On the other side of the panel, you will find an array of objects. You have 30 seconds to grab five things to take with you as you flee.”
I think I grabbed my passport, my meds, water and a cell phone. I ran out of town before I could choose a fifth. Choosing my meds, when I have only diabetes and nothing that is immediately life threatening, shows how out of touch I am with the refugee experience. Diabetes…sheeze! The least of my worries. The passport, it turns out, is a dubious choice as well. If you are caught and you have your passport, they know where to send you back to.
Station 4 – Escape
We’ve escaped. Now we have to get to someplace safe where we can live. If we have enough money, we can pay a smuggler to get us across the Mediterranean to Europe. They load us onto a rubber raft that has exactly zero chance of making the crossing. The raft is made to hold eight. The smuggler typically loads 35 refugees. Hands out phony life vests that are for show only. Straps on a motor. Gives someone a cell phone. The raft will sink. The refugees’ only hope is to contact a rescue vessel.
Station 5 – Legal Status
We divided according to the legal status on our cards. Refugees on one side, asylum seekers on the other. John discusses status and its implications.
Station 6 – Basic Needs
Basic needs in a refugee camp. Note the five-gallon water jugs. One contains two gallons, typical daily allotment for a family. Another contains five gallons, the recommended minimum. Then there’s a row of a 15 five-gallon jugs. “Does anyone know what that represents?” John asked. It’s what each of US uses every day.
Station 7 – Medical Care
Medical tents. Cholera beds. Malaria meds. Diseases that are easily cured, but fatal if left unintended, and can spread like wildfire through the camp. Cholera doesn’t kill; dehydration kills. Keep the patient hydrated and she recovers. Malaria is cured by eight pills. I think John said that Burundi has made it illegal to import the drug. Why? He shrugs.
He showed us some plastic bands, like they put on your wrist in the hospital for identification. But these are for measuring kids’ arms, to assess their level of malnutrition. Ready-to-use Therapeutic Food packs can save a child. John gives out a week’s supply. He wants to see the patient again and assess the progress.
Station 8 – Forced From Home
John points to a photo of a beautiful smiling girls. He says that one of the other volunteers has worked with her. She has been subjected to sexual violence and other hardships and is severely traumatized.
Take a look at the list of top 10 host countries. Except for Germany, they are all third world. Some are very poor. Guess who isn’t on the list.