Diplomatic Pouch / September 22, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Ever been in a refugee camp? If you haven’t and you’re curious what everyday life is like for 65 million people around the world, visit the Washington Monument next week.
During the first nine days of October, the nonprofit organization Doctors Without Borders — known by its French abbreviation MSF, for Médecins Sans Frontières — is bringing that experience to you.
Forced From Home, a multimedia exhibit that attempts to recreate the atmosphere of a refugee camp, runs Oct. 1-9 on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Currently in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the MSF display focuses on five specific refugee scenarios: Syria, Burundi, South Sudan, Honduras and Iraq.
“This has been a long time in the making,” said John Fiddler, medical coordinator for the Forced from Home exhibit. “We’re trying to bring the experience of what’s it’s like to be a refugee forced from your home to the general public. We want to give a voice to the people who are right now voiceless.”
MSF estimates the number of refugees worldwide at 65 million. Of that total, about 43 million are internally displaced in their own countries. Such people, Fiddler noted, often have fewer rights than someone who’s crossed an international border.
“Our exhibit is an experiential journey through aspects of the refugee crisis worldwide,” said Fiddler, an Irish nurse practicioner who’s been with MSF since 2005. “You’ll be taken on a journey of people who are scared, on the run, and with nowhere to turn except to keep running.”
The budget for the Forced From Home exhibit is $1.7 million, including the costs of building its structures from scratch. The Paris-based MSF, founded in 1971 by a group of 13 doctors and journalists, operates with an annual budget of around $750 million.
It accepts few funds from foreign governments, nor has it worked with any embassies or other nonprofits in arranging this particular project. About 92 percent of MSF’s funds come from 5.7 million individual donors.
“We make a point of being apolitical. In fact, that’s what makes us so popular; we refuse to take sides,” Fiddler told the Pouch. “We are well funded — mostly by private contributions — and we cherish our independence. We believe that politics really doesn’t have a place here.”
As of 2015, MSF oversaw 446 projects in 69 countries. It has 34,000 staff members both in the United States and overseas. In a Sept. 19 press release issued just as world leaders were meeting in New York for the UN High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants, MSF urged those leaders “not to turn a blind eye on the suffering faced by millions of refugees and migrants around the globe.”
It noted that “as the leaders sit down to trumpet their pledges, 75,000 Syrian refugees are trapped on the Jordanian border with Syria just kilometers from a war zone, 350,000 Somali refugees are at risk of being sent back to a war zone from Dadaab (Kenya) and tens of thousands are enduring hell in Libya as they await their chance at the Mediterranean crossing that has killed 3,200 men, women and children in this year alone.”
MSF added: “Elsewhere in the world, Central American asylum seekers in Mexico are treated appallingly under Programa Frontera Sur, funded by the United States, the Rohingya people are denied their rights and exploited across South East Asia, and 2.6 million people have been forced from their homes by Boko Haram in Lake Chad.”
Fiddler, who returned three weeks ago from his latest medical mission in the Central African Republic, has also worked in both Burundi and Chad.
“Because of the collective memory of political violence people have in Burundi — where 10 years ago there were massive killings — it’s alive in their memories, and that’s why people are fleeing,” he said. “There seems to be a cycle.”
He said that the doctors and others are MSF staffers like himself who have just recently returned from the field, working with displaced people.
“One of the key parts of our exhibit is not just the tents and the videos, but the actual stories of the volunteers. In our exhibition, for example, we show pictures of the hospital in Qunduz [Afghanistan] that was bombed,” said Fiddler, referring to the Oct. 3, 2015, air strike by U.S. forces that killed 14 MSF staffers and 28 others. “We present the facts and leave to the visitors and the public in general to make up their minds about what they’re thinking. The facts are so searing, they speak for themselves.”
After Washington, Forced From Home travels to Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Although additional cities and dates have not been confirmed, MSF expects the exhibit to tour overseas as well.
Entry to the exhibit is free, though online registration is required in advance.
“We don’t actively ask for donations. I’d like to think it’s more of an attraction than a promotion,” said Fiddler. “But once we’ve explained our work and what we do, people do feel compelled to donate to us.”