A Chance to Walk in a Refugee’s Shoes from Overseas to Your City
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By Audrey F. Henderson
Displaced persons often leave their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs; along with whatever they can carry, including cash, food, water — and cell phones.
Although refugees, displaced persons, migrants and asylum-seekers are predominantly poor, the vast majority have cell phones, which are among the most valuable possessions for displaced persons, according to Marcos Leitao, an administrator and training facilitator with Médicines Sans Frontières (MSF), known in the United States as Doctors Without Borders.
Originally from Brazil, Leitao joined MSF in 2010 after a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. Since then he has worked in some of the world’s most troubled locations, including Niger, Colombia, Afghanistan and South Sudan. He was one of several MSF workers assigned to conduct tours through the Forced from Home exhibition, installed in Chicago from Sept. 23-30 outside Daley Plaza, in the heart of the Loop.
Forced from Home is a three-year project MSF designed to highlight the plight of displaced persons across the globe, giving visitors a chance to walk a few minutes or a few hours in the shoes of some of the newer neighbors they might not realize they have. MSF chose exhibition locations specifically to illustrate the fact that displacement is increasingly an urban phenomenon.
Minneapolis hosted the exhibition at The Commons from Sept. 9-16. After leaving Chicago, the exhibition will be installed at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. from Oct. 7-14. After that, the exhibition heads south to West Park Plaza in Atlanta from October 21-28. The last stop for the exhibition is the Western Lot of the Main Plaza in San Antonio, Texas, from Nov. 4-11. Exhibitions in each location are free and open to the public.
“The first year we were on the East Coast, last year we were on the West Coast, so this year we’re focusing on the mid-Central region. We wanted to have a distribution across the U.S.,” says Erin Ching, a logistician with MSF. “We wanted to look at major metropolitan cities as well where we could bring awareness of this issue. Chicago actually does have a large refugee population – one of the largest Rohingya populations outside of Bangladesh and Myanmar.”
In fact, an April 2016 Chicago Tribune story reported that presently Chicago has nearly 1,000 Rohingya refugees in approximately 300 families, the majority of whom live in Rogers Park on the city’s far North Side and Albany Park on the city’s Northwest Side. According to the article, Rohingya refugees began arriving in Chicago in 2013. Earlier in 2016, the Zakat Foundation of America, an Islamic nonprofit organization, sponsored the opening of the Rohingya Cultural Center in a storefront in West Rogers Park that includes meeting space and computers.
Displacement as a phenomenon is increasing rapidly due to war, natural disasters and other factors, along with countries enacting ever-tightening refugee and asylum-seeker policies, according to Ching.
In just the last 10 years, displaced persons worldwide went from 33 million, to 42 million, to now 68.5 (million), Ching says.
“Increasingly across the globe you see closed-door migration policies. And we’re trying to show people that seeking safety is not a crime, that people are forced from their homes, and give them an understanding of what that journey actually looks like, and the challenges that they face,” she adds.
As part of the Forced from Home exhibition, MSF workers guide groups of approximately 20 participants through a series of stations designed to demonstrate conditions faced by displaced persons as they attempt to make their way to safety. The entire tour requires approximately one hour. The tours are designed to be accessible to people with mobility issues as well as to those whose native language is not English, according to Ching.
“It was important to us that we open this exhibition to as many people as possible. So that means that every time we set up a site we make sure it’s ADA compliant,” says Ching. Tours are available in different languages. MSF flies guides in from its staff across the world — in Chicago, there was a Hungarian speaker, a Polish speaker, Spanish, French, Italian, and English of course. Each Saturday in Chicago the exhibition offered tours in American Sign Language for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
Each tour begins with each member receiving an “identity” card that identifies their status as refugee, internally displaced person or asylum seeker, along with their country of origin. The group is then gathered into a 360-degree video dome featuring streaming video of locations where MSF provides assistance to displaced persons.
At the next stop, the group gathers to learn about various “push factors” that force displaced persons from their homes, ranging from fear of persecution to natural disasters. At this station, each person is allowed 30 seconds to gather five plastic cards that represent various necessities to take along for the remainder of the tour, including medicines, money, passports, cell phones, shoes and clothing or family memorabilia and valuables such as photos or jewelry.
The next station is a small inflatable raft with a gas powered motor attached and life jackets lying inside. Each participant must relinquish one of their five cards to enter the raft. Men sit along the edges of the raft, while women and children are placed inside.
“If you are in this raft, you are the lucky ones. There are others who are still waiting,” Leitao explained.
During an actual dislocation journey, many inside the raft are actually not so lucky. They often suffer serious burns on their backs from heat generated by the gas engine. Some are so weak after leaving the raft that they must receive immediate medical attention, Leitao said.
At the next station, participants are required to give up another card. The group is instructed to stand on either side of a chain link a fence, according to their legal status: asylum seekers and refugees on one side, internally displaced persons on the other. This exercise is meant to symbolize the fact that asylum seekers and refugees have some protections under international law — however, internally displaced persons have no rights under international law since they remain under the jurisdiction of their home countries, Leitao explained.
Participants must relinquish another card at the next station, which represents basic needs: food, clothing, clean water and medications, as well as cell phone chargers. At this station, Leitao explains how a stand-up latrine works to the astonished group participants. He also explains how displaced persons carry phones along with lists of contact information. Cell phones provide an essential means of communicating with family members and loved ones. Displacement camps are often equipped with chargers powered by solar panels or gasoline generators. The service is not free, Leitao said.
“Everything has a price,” Leitao explained.
At the next station, participants relinquish another card. Here, Leitao explained that many displaced persons arrive at the camp malnourished and sick. He also explained that many ailments are caused by poor conditions displaced persons must endure.
At the final station, each participant in the group is only holding a single card. The group observes a series of tents, each containing items from actual displacement camps. The small tents typically house entire families, who may remain in displacement camps for years.
After the conclusion of the tour, participants are invited to visit the virtual reality tent, where one of six immersive documentaries illustrate experiences from displaced persons in six regions: a Honduran family that has fled to Mexico, a Rohingya family from Myanmar located in Bangladesh, a Syrian refugee at Domiz Camp in Iraq, Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Shatila Camp in Lebanon, a 21-year-old refugee from Burundi located in Tanzania and an internally displaced family at Bentiu Camp in South Sudan.
Before exiting the exhibition, visitors pass through the “Take Action” tent, where they can learn more about how they can help displaced persons – either by volunteering for overseas duty with MSF or by working with organizations in their own locations.
“A lot of people come to the exhibition and say ‘I want to get involved but I’m not going to leave my 9 to 5 to go overseas’ or ‘I’m a parent, I have a family here’ so we wanted to highlight ways that people could get involved locally,” Ching says.