If you had 30 seconds to grab five essential items and knew you might never return home and faced a long journey ahead, what would you choose?
Fleeing war, disaster and persecution, over 65.6 million people in other countries who fled their homes faced this dilemma.
Traveling exhibition Forced From Home posed this question to guide participants through the first exercise featured at the outdoor Plaza Courthouse in Boulder. Created by Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, it ran from Sept. 4 through 10. The exhibit’s goal was to raise awareness about the conditions of refugees, migrants and internationally displaced people worldwide. Doctors, nurses and experienced aid workers actively involved in MSF gave guided tours.
“The overriding theme in all my missions is that we may be very different in a lot of ways, coming from different countries and different religions and backgrounds,” said volunteer Jessica Huddleston. “But we’re all human and we all have the same needs and desires to have a safe family and a safe home.”
Huddleston began with MSF in 2013 where her job was training nurses and nurse assistants. Her first mission was in Yida, a refugee camp in South Sudan that holds over 70,000 people who fled from homes bombed by government warplanes. The United Nations refused to recognize Yida as an official refugee camp, limiting services normally provided by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
As an international humanitarian non-governmental organization, MSF provides medical and humanitarian assistance to places like Yida that are ignored by other organizations. They offer assistance based on need, regardless of race, religion, gender or political affiliation.
Volunteer Tyson Hegarty started out in the Peace Corps in Bangladesh. He witnessed the conditions there and saw how much basic health care needs weren’t being met.
“Once I became a nurse the focus was on getting care to people that need it the most,” Hegarty said. “And knowing that people that really need it the most happen to live in another country thousands of miles away, it was always on my mind.”
The interactive exhibit focused on Afghanistan, Burundi, Honduras, South Sudan and Syria. Tours consisted of groups ranging from 10 to 15 people. Guides handed out cards labeled with a country and the status of refugee or internationally displaced person. After the guide went over each country, the group entered a geodesic dome to watch a 360 degree video with footage of displaced people and their struggles.
The next station displayed freestanding panel walls, each labeled with a country on one side and pegs holding plastic squares with pictures of essential and sentimental items. Everyone is given 30 seconds to pick five items and then their choices are discussed.
Each new station offers more examples of what refugees go through when they are forced to flee their homes. And at each station, a plastic card must be given up, representing the loss these people suffer on their journey. Many items, such as a cell phone with no way to charge it, became useless. Other items, like passports, had to be traded away when they became a liability instead of an asset. Personal items were often traded for items like water, which is necessary for survival.
The tour displayed makeshift tents held up with branches and covered with pieces of tarp and plastic trash bags. The dirt floors covered three by five feet and families of five or six are often crammed into shelters like these for years. Examples of tents that house patients display mosquito netting over beds to protect patients from disease carrying insects. Buckets are placed at the head and in the middle of each cot for patients with cholera.
The volunteer aid workers explained the difficulty of treating thousands of people in the camps with so few volunteers. For Hegarty, the difference between healthcare in other countries and the U.S. is staggering.
“It builds your awareness and sometimes that can lead to difficulties working in a system where you see resources going to what are maybe nonessential activities,” Hegarty said.
Huddleston said Forced From Home received great feedback from everyone that came out to see the exhibit.
“They want to know how they can help without being in the field because they can’t leave their current lives,” Huddleston said. “But everyone’s been really excited and asked where we’re going next and how they can get more involved.”
For college students who are interested, but not sure how to help, volunteer Imma Bramlage said it’s not just doctors and nurses that are needed.
“Sometimes my job can be the easy job,” Bramlage said. “But it’s the people behind the scenes, the logistics department, the supply chain, the H.R. recruiters, whatever it may be, you do have to tailor your skills to make sure they’re applicable in that context.”
Doctors Without Borders hopes the exhibition will make people see the damage caused when governments close their borders, force people to return to places where death or persecution await them, or leave them in war zones. About 51 percent of those people are children under 18. Developing regions host 84 percent of refugees, while the six wealthiest countries, including the U.S., host 9 percent.
Forced From Home exemplifies MSF’s efforts to advocate for policy changes to ensure humane conditions for refugees and internationally displaced people. The exhibition will be visiting more cities until November and Huddleston encourages college students to see it.
“I think regardless of your major in college it’s important to see,” Huddleston said. “This is current events and you should know what’s happening in the world. If you’re political science it’s pertinent. It’s pertinent really for every major you could have.”