MSF Takes Experience of Refugees on the Road in U.S. to Build Empathy

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October 14, 2016; CityLab

On a morning when the news is reporting a possible mass exodus from the city of Mosul, where people are fleeing the area of an almost-certain attack following their children being recruited to fight, public impromptu executions, and other horrors, we might wonder what would prompt an opening of our hearts and our borders.

When she was on the coast, Psarra recalls seeing several tiny, dark dots out on the waves. They were boats, often stuffed with way too many people. Some would sink under the weight. Others would topple over because the people on board had little knowledge of how to sail. Some didn’t have enough fuel to begin with. Often, the smugglers who had put these families on the boats didn’t provide proper life vests. That’s why many drowned along the way.

When Psarra and her team approached, the migrants would thrust the children towards them. “Take the children, take the babies,” she recalls them saying. One time, they grabbed a three year old boy, who had already died of asphyxiation on the overcrowded boat.

What would you do if you were suddenly awakened and forced out of your bed and your home? You have a few moments to grab a handful of personal belongings, and suddenly your life changes. For most, this is just an extreme scenario that doesn’t cross your mind. You live your life as usual; going to work, washing your car, and going to sleep with your loved ones nearby. When was the last time you were afraid that today might be your last day with your family?

As NPQ noted in an earlier newswire, according to the UN Refugee Agency’s latest report, during 2015, 65.3 million individuals have been forcibly displaced from their homes. This is 5.8 million more people than in the previous year, and comprises 40.8 million internally displaced persons, 21.3 million refugees, and 3.2 million asylum-seekers.

Forced from Home,” an immersive exhibition presented by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), delivers an interactive tour to the public that simulates the experience and “put[s] a face” to the statistics.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the virtual reality (VR) experience. A 30-foot diameter dome offers a 360-degree video experience while visitors use personal VR gear to watch documentaries that show “patients escaping crisis in Burundi, Honduras, and Syria.”

“This exhibit confronts visitors with the impossible choices millions of people face each day as they run from horrific war, persecution, and economic deprivation,” said Jason Cone, Executive Director for MSF-USA. “Our objective is to provide a sense of what people experience as they cross treacherous seas, travel through dangerous migratory routes and arrive at refugee camps.”

All tours are led by MSF field aid workers, who are able to tell firsthand stories. Melanie Barthezeme, a MSF aide and exhibit tour guide, observed that most visitors are “stunned” by the raw reality of the presented crises, but that overall reactions were positive and supportive. Barthezeme was enthusiastic to mention that some visitors would grab the guides’ arms to physically confirm that the aid workers were real and not virtual. “It is important for visitors to learn about what [aid workers] do, as well as what they bear witness to, so that people can understand the refugees’ conditions.”

Melanie spoke of a time when she was concerned that the exhibit’s message was not being effectively conveyed. During one tour group consisting of particularly rambunctious students, she felt that the visitors were uninterested and desensitized to the exhibition’s presentation. However, at the end of the tour, a student asked, “What can I do to help refugees?”

“One kid asked, and you realized you [had] hit it, you [had] impacted them,” said Melanie.

With this exhibit, the conversation surrounding the global crisis for refugees and displaced persons becomes humanized and you begin to see the faces of refugees and aid workers. You get a glimpse of their hardships and you realize that this experience will bear a profound impact.

The tour will next be in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza on October 27–31, 2016, and then on to Independence Mall in Philadelphia on November 5–13, 2016. The tour will travel to the West Coast next year. You can learn more about the exhibition at ForcedFromHome.com.—Scarlet Kim