The harrowing, tumultuous journey of a refugee seeking safety is often cloaked by the sheer number of similar stories — from about 65 million people displaced worldwide, the highest since World War II.
But going beyond just hearing one tragic story after the other, a free and traveling interactive exhibit by Doctors Without Borders now in Oakland puts visitors in the shoes of someone fleeing their home. Visitors to Forced From Home, which opened Monday, Oct. 30, and ends this Sunday, Nov. 5, have 30 seconds to choose five essential items, one of which they must give to “border agents” as they stare down the path refugees often take and the decisions they face.
“This is a really unique way to bring foreign realities to people here,” says Mark Leirer, a group field worker coordinating the exhibit. “I’m always really surprised by how much it impacts people on an emotional level.”
The six-city West Coast tour will end in Santa Monica on Nov. 19 and is looking to do the same in the Midwest and South, Leirer says.
A 360-degree video dome immerses visitors in the world of refugees who made it to Greece, Tanzania, Mexico, and Lebanon before taking them to snapshots to dive into the conflict driving people out of Honduras, Burundi, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria. Political strife, violence, ethnic or religious tension, economic instability, medical need, food insecurity, and environmental conditions or natural disasters are common factors pushing people out.
To kick off the path of a designated asylum seeker from Honduras — without the perspective of a parent needing items like formula or diapers— I hastily chose plastic cards representing food, money, a phone, clothes, and a passport. The tour next moved to a raft, where guide Keith Longbone told the group that a ride can be $500 to $2,000, with another $50 for life jackets.
Smugglers visit the families of those without the money to pay up-front, to cancel the debt with money, animals, services, and even trafficking, Longbone says. Those on the move are vulnerable to hygiene-related illnesses, war-related injuries, kidnapping and torture, sexual violence, mental health issues, and detention.
In the next part of the journey for those who make it by foot or boat to a border, visitors are separated by legal status between a fence and by barbed wire. Visitors learn how branding as a refugee, internally displaced person, asylum seeker, stateless person or migrant determines the amount, if any, of protections under international law.
In replicas of tents, visitors also learn other survival tactics in camps or informal settlements, like burning trash so as to not attract rats or snakes. Humanitarian groups tend to the needs that come out of unsafe water, poor hygiene, malnutrition, elemental exposure, and no access to basic medical care.
By the end, I had only the passport, but my group was told mobile phones and keys to their homes are the most kept possessions. People often keep photos of documents, passports, contacts, and pictures of loved ones as they hold onto a phone connection.
The tour guides themselves have experience helping refugees as Doctors Without Borders aid workers, adding anecdotes of helping survivors. San Francisco nurse Donna Canali completed a dozen assignments with the medical humanitarian group and says she was often in awe of refugees’ resilience.
One young woman who Canali met fled to a camp after some family members were killed in Mogadishu, Somalia. Amid terrible living conditions where she used sticks to build a shelter for her four children, she took in two orphans.
“She had nothing and yet she took on, in addition to her own children, these children,” Canali says. “Somehow, they’re able to pull hope out of themselves to go on.”
People evacuated from the North Bay fires may be able to relate to fleeing and losing their homes, but refugees don’t have the same resources to fall back on or recoup, Canali says. Millions who flee often do because of conflict that deems their lives disposable, with ruthless killings, rapes and even murdered children.
“I think the vast majority of people don’t really absorb the fact that the vast majority of people who entering their countries as refugees aren’t there just because they want a better life,” Canali says. “The people they’re fleeing from dehumanized them.”
The path after escape continues to dehumanize them, with militarized borders that may send them back to danger, Canali says. While we may not see many refugees from Burundi or South Sudan in the Bay Area, she points to people from Central and South America head toward our borders to escape violence that we can treat with humanity.
“It’s not always one thing that pushes people out of their homes,” Leirer says. “It’s a multitude of reasons, so everyone should be given the justice to have their story heard and be heard as a person.”
Much of the information you might be reading now is just that — information. If even as a temporary simulation, the Forced From Home exhibit is the closest tangible experience many of us will have of those 65 million seeking survival from unbearable conditions at home.
Forced From Home, Monday, Oct. 30 to Sunday, Nov. 5, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, 10 10th Street, Oakland. forcedfromhome.com