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Exhibit offers glimpse into refugee life and humanitarian aid by Doctors Without Borders

Imagine you had just a few seconds to choose a handful of things to take with you before you flee from your home, possibly forever. What would you choose? You may never experience a situation like this, but for an estimated 65.6 million people worldwide who were forced from their homes and are now living as refugees, this scenario is all too real.

The scope and severity of global refugee crisis is hard to wrap your mind around, especially if you haven't seen or experienced it firsthand. So, to help people get a sense of what it's like to be a refugee, and what aid workers — and you— can do to help, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MFS) created Forced From Home — a free, interactive exhibit that is touring six U.S. cities.

This week, the 10,000 square-foot exhibit is in Oakland, Calif., where I got to take the hour-long interactive tour. My guide was Elvis Otieno, a mental health specialist at MSF, who shepherded several small parties, and a few singletons like myself, into a group of about 20. Each person was given a country of origin card and was invited to sit as Otieno explained the history of Doctors Without Borders.

Then, Otieno brought us to a circle of large posters with images of displaced people in places like South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria. War and violence is the biggest “push factor” that forces people from their homes, Otieno explained. Ethnic and religious tension is the second largest push factor followed by political strife, economic instability, access to health care and food insecurity. The smallest push factor is natural disasters.

Otieno pointed to an image of people in Afghanistan as we walked by. "I lost several of my colleagues when a MSF hospital was bombed there," Otieno said softly.

Otieno asked us to find the image that corresponded to our country of origin card and then walk around to the back of it. On the backside of each image we saw several plastic tags adorned with images of everyday items, such as keys, clothes, a bike, and a guitar. "You have five seconds," Otieno said. "Choose five items to take with you."

Suddenly my group was a flurry of action. The woman to my right asked, "Do I take keys or water? Water? Is water good?" The man next to her nodded and said, "Do I need money or a passport?"

"Time’s up." Otieno called out. From now on, he explained, each time we move through a station we must choose an item to part with as payment. I looked down at the tags in my hands. Had the exercise been real, I would have fled my home with a six-pack of water, cash, my passport, my pets/livestock, and — I realized with some embarrassment — family photos I’d mistakenly thought represented my actual family members. I didn’t have a cell phone, spare clothes or even food.

We walked to the next station, which was a full-sized boat. "Get in," Otieno called out. We balked for a moment. "There’s not enough room," said a woman to my left. "I’m elderly, I cannot get in," said the woman next to me. "You can get in and there’s room," Otieno said. "There has to be."

Otieno pointed to a photo of people sitting in a boat that looked identical to ours. "There are about 100 people in that boat," he said. "The men sat along the edges of the boat and the women and children sat in the middle." The middle of the boat is where chemicals from the boat mix with the water that slushes in, Otieno explained. “It burns your skin," he said.

We progressed to the next station, parting with one of our five prized objects in the process.

Soon we reached a MSF camp identical to the field stations that treat people for cholera. "At a set up like this you will have two, maybe one doctor and 10 to 100 nurses," Otieno said. Here the aid workers measure how much water each patient loses and how much they take in, giving them rehydration salts until they are well. They also educate the community about ways to prevent the spread of cholera and they make sure that the cholera-contaminated material at the station doesn’t contaminate the water supply.

"How does Doctors Without Borders decide where to go?" a group member asked. "Where the need is the greatest," Otieno responded.

The next station showed how doctors and nurses measure patients’ nutrition with a mid-upper arm circumference band and assess their general health. A dictionary of diseases is present at every station like this, Otieno explained saying, "in the U.S. you may have learned about every disease out there, but you haven’t been confronted by it."

Otieno led us to a refugee camp where a pair of shoes made from tires and several toys lay on the ground. These are true objects gathered from refugee camps, Otieno explained, picking up a toy car someone lovingly crafted from a tin that once held insecticide. "Some of these toys are very creative," Otieno said smiling. "You may have noticed I didn’t charge you a card for the last two stations," Otieno said. "Do you know why? It’s because we don’t charge. MSF doesn’t charge for medical assistance."

The Forced From Home exhibit is free and open daily in Oakland from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Nov. 5. (It then moves to Santa Monica, Calif.) You can learn more about the exhibit, view related content and watch educational videos at the Forced From Home website.

Previously: Dispatch from Lebanon: Refugee children need education, as well as health careThe mental health of refugees: A psychologist debunks common myths and Muslim and afraid – but not alone
Photos by Holly Alyssa MacCormick

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