Forced From Home brings the migrant crisis to Pearl Street

At Forced From Home, visitors are asked to consider what they’d take in a moment’s notice if they had to leave their homes.
Elias Williams

Last summer, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. One in every 113 people has been forced to flee their home. At the time, it was the highest number on record. Now the global agency estimates the number has reached 65.6 million worldwide.

While the number may seem inconceivably large, a traveling interactive exhibit by Doctors without Borders/Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), seeks to humanize the migration crisis in a tangible way for people in the U.S. Coming to the Pearl Street Mall Sept. 4-10, Forced From Home leads visitors through different stages of a migrant’s journey and features a variety of materials gathered from refugee camps, sea rescue missions and emergency medical projects from around the world.

“One of the organization’s core principles is to bear witness, speak out against abuses and neglect, and amplify the voices of our patients,” says Rachel Milkovich, media coordinator with MSF. “This exhibition is a key component of MSF’s broader efforts to advocate for concrete policy changes to meet the urgent needs of people on the move.”

The exhibit explores all displaced people, including refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people (IDPs) or those forced from their homes, but still living in their home countries.

As visitors enter the exhibit, they receive an identification card from Afghanistan, Burundi, Honduras, South Sudan or Syria. Although MSF has projects in 71 countries, these five regions demonstrate the truly global scope of the migration crisis. In groups of about 10, visitors are then taken through a series of interactive stations, led by an MSF aid worker who can personally attest to and discuss the medical and humanitarian consequences of fleeing one’s home.

As a guide for the exhibit’s East Coast tour last year, Dr. Ahmed Abdalrazag says the Forced From Home exhibit brings the visitors “close to the experience by telling them that these people are human like you,” Abdalrazag says. “They have passion like you, dreams like you. They are artists, they are dancers, they are doctors, some of them are astronauts.”

Abdalrazag grew up in Iraq and first fled his home during the 1991 Gulf War as government forces searched his neighborhood for insurgents.

“[We were] trying to survive so we left,” Abdalrazag says. “We just walked in the middle of the night. We grabbed a few blankets and then we just kept walking for days.”

Eventually, Abdalrazag and his family returned home, but only briefly. In 1998, his family fled to Libya, where he attended medical school. But then during the unrest of the Arab Spring in 2011, Abdalrazag and his family had to leave again, this time traveling to Tunisia, where they were granted refugee status with the UNHCR. While he waited for his placement application to process, he worked in a nearby MSF clinic. Now, he lives in Michigan and is working to get his U.S. medical license.

“No one wants to leave their home. Nobody wants to be a refugee. Nobody wants to run away,” says Karen Stewart, another tour guide from last year’s exhibit. “It’s not by choice. … The majority of people who are on the move right now are being forced.”

The exhibition includes a virtual reality dome, which allows visitors a closer look at the realities of displacement. Elias Williams

Stewart, from Denver, has worked with MSF since 2004 as a mental health officer in such places as Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She’s seen the growing migration crisis first-hand, working at MSF clinics in a variety of conflict sites around the world.

“There are more people on the move but there also seems to be more reasons,” Stewart says. “It’s not just violence and political strife. It’s food insecurity or no healthcare.”

Plus, she says, natural disasters are now a factor — like the recent massive mud slide in Sierra Leone that has claimed more than 1,000 lives. Thousands more people have been evacuated due to flooding.

But it was her time in the DRC in 2010 that was perhaps the most difficult mission for Stewart. She provided mental health support to local counselors at a sexual and domestic violence clinic, which averaged about 20 rape victims a day.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, more than half a million people have fled the DRC while another 2.2 million are internally displaced. In 2016 alone, the U.S. resettled more than 16,000 refugees from the DRC, the largest population from any one country. It is a crisis not often mentioned in international media, but one Stewart uses as she walks people through Forced From Home. 

Karen Stewart guides a group through the Forced From Home exhibit in New York in 2016. Elias Williams

After visitors receive their identification cards, the exhibit starts with a 360-degree dome, where visitors are surrounded by images of the migrant crisis as an introduction.

One of the most powerful stations, Stewart says, discusses push factors, reasons why people flee. Visitors are given about one minute to grab five essential items depicted on a wall of plastic cards to take with them on the journey. Do you grab your passport or water? Medications or cell phone? What about family photos?

“You might have one minute to make a decision on what you’re going to grab. Because you’re at home, you’re just doing your thing, cooking or whatever and then boom, you hear the rebels coming,” Stewart says. “And you have one minute to pick up everything and get to the forest.”

The exhibition also explores the different journeys people must take to reach safety.

“In South Sudan, people are traveling by foot. From Central and South America they’re coming by trains. Certainly on the Mediterranean you’re on a boat,” Stewart says. At which point, the group climbs into a rubber dinghy similar to the ones currently being used to transfer people from North Africa to Southern Europe. Only instead of a dozen people, these boats are usually filled with 30 or more.

“And where are those people going to be? They are probably going to be down at your feet,” Stewart says. “And who are those vulnerable people at your feet going to be? Women and children.”

The tour also walks visitors through MSF medical tents, where tour guides explain the predominant health concerns migrants face and also what kind of care the organization is able to provide.

Lastly, the group stands next to a chain-link fence, as the tour guides separate people based on where they’ve come from and what they receive. Refugees from certain countries are treated differently. All refugees get more than IDPs.

“They might end up in an IDP camp with a makeshift tent made out of rice bags,” Stewart says. “Or they might end up in an actual refugee camp that has a decent tent.”

Or they might end up in an unofficial camp, like the thousands of people who inhabited a make-shift camp known as “the Jungle” in the French port city of Calais up until last October when French authorities closed it down. Regardless, people often spend years in these conditions waiting to either return home or be settled somewhere officially.

“At the end, this puts faces on these stories and humanizes them,” Abdalrazag concludes. “We’re talking about 65 million people that no one talks about. We are trying to raise awareness and make this more than just a number.”

More info: Forced From Home. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 4-10, Courthouse Plaza on the Pearl Street Mall. Tours are free, fully accessible, and take roughly one hour to complete. Families are welcome, however, the content is best suited to children ages 12 and up.

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