Forced from home

The lives of refugees can seem worlds away for many folks living in the United States. It can be hard to get a deeper understanding of the issues they face. Doctors Without Borders/Medecines Sans Frontieres (MSF)’s exhibit Forced From Home seeks to change that by bringing insight into refugees to towns across the country. Through a free, interactive outdoor exhibition and guided tour with an experienced MSF worker, visitors gain a better understanding of the daily realities of the more than 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

When I arrived to the Forced From Home exhibit in Seattle at the Southlake Union Discovery Center, I was given a card with a “country of origin”—such as Honduras, Afghanistan, Burundi, South Sudan, and Syria—as well as a legal status to guide my journey. As a ONE staffer, we talk about issues of extreme poverty and preventable disease everyday, but being at this 10,000 square foot exhibit was unreal.

The first part was a 360-degree video dome where we were introduced to some of the places where displaced people originate from and where MSF has been providing assistance. It was difficult to see that some of the countries ONE works with to combat extreme poverty—such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda—often host a disproportionate amount of refugees, thus making our work that much more important.

At the second station, we were introduced to the reality many people face when forced to leave their homes. Armed conflict and persecution are some of the many factors people must weigh when making a wrenching decision to leave their home. These are called push factors. Often families are forced to leave quickly with just a few belongings. At this station, we were allowed to choose five belongings to bring with us along our journey. Choosing five belongings in under 30 seconds was stressful to say the least; I ended up choosing water, my phone, money, medication, and fishing equipment. I wish I could say it was a thought-out choice but with so little time, I had to grab whatever I could reach first. Some people in our tour didn’t have time to even grab five items.

While on the road, things do not get any easier. Overseas journeys can be dangerous, expensive, and poorly equipped. Many of these boats do not have captains and the life jackets are flimsy pieces of foam. Eight of us sitting in the boat was a squeeze, and often four times that many people have to cram into one lifeboat. Combine that with days and days on the water and it’s a powerful reminder of how difficult this journey would be. On top of that, to pay for our journey across, the exhibit asked us to surrender one of our items. I surrendered my fishing equipment because I couldn’t imagine giving anything else up at the time.

Unfortunately, refugees face a complex legal and political reality upon arriving to their destination country. Whether they are a refugee, immigrant, or asylum seeker has huge ramifications for how quickly the process goes or whether they will be allowed through at all. This process is also expensive and, in the exhibit, cost each of us another item to get through.

Once arrived, life at the camps is difficult. Where do displaced people get access to food, clothing, safe water and medicines, all of which they had to leave behind? MSF works to fulfill these needs as well as provide free medical service but the gaps in access to treatment are still large. Language at the camps can also be a barrier and the residents use art to convey messages to one another about medical facilities and preventable disease that often occurs at refugee camps. I was blown away by the incredible amount of problem solving, especially the Tanzanian art mural detailing symptoms of a disease to allow everyone to get treatment.

Over the course of the journey, people usually do not have access to their medications and preventable disease such as HIV/AIDS and TB often go untreated until the refugees are able to get treatment, making it much more difficult to end preventable disease once and for all. It made me feel like ONE’s work was even more important so that people didn’t have to worry about chronic and treatable disease while having to start a new life away from their home. Access to education is a huge issue too: Right now over 130 million girls are out of schools, many of them living in conflict zones.

MSF provides medical treatment for free, but food, water, and shelter is not free. So in the exhibit, we had to surrender two more items before we were finally able to settle down. I gave up my passport and phone, thinking that money would be the priority for starting a new life. To my surprise, I learned that a passport is one of the most important possessions someone can keep on them and that my money was likely going to be no good wherever I ended up. It was a frustrating predicament to be in having gone through so much. Those in our group who didn’t initially grab five items were left with nothing. These constant choices between food, water, shelter, safety, health, and connection to home are unimaginable.

So what happens next? For someone who is displaced, returning to their country or making a new home is the number one priority. Building a new life, accessing medical care, and sending their children to school can be challenging and they need your help. By taking action, donating to organizations that support refugees, and spreading the word, everyone can make a difference.

Want to experience this exhibit for yourself? Forced From Home will be touring in Portland, Oakland, and Santa Monica. You can find more information on their future stops and about the exhibit here.

The ONE Campaign has been working over the past year to understand the challenges around combining and presenting data on refugees and internally displaced people. Learn more about where people are and what they need through ONE’s MOVEMENT project.