Horror at home

Pub date October 14, 2008
WriterKatie Baker

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According to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 26 million people around the globe are currently seeking safety from conflicts within their own countries. Almost half of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) do not receive significant assistance from their governments.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that 16 million people have fled to other countries in search of safety — many settling down in refugee camps that lack adequate shelter, supplies, and medical treatment.

Find it hard to grasp the enormity of these statistics? According to Dr. Matthew Spitzer, so do most people — which is why the Nobel Peace Prize- winning humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is setting up a refugee camp in the heart of San Francisco.

"So often there are news articles that say 100,000 refugees just did this, there’s famine in Ethiopia … it just doesn’t register anymore," Spitzer, who has worked with MSF around the world and currently serves as president of the MSF board of directors, told the Guardian. MSF’s interactive exhibit, "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City," attempts to combat what Spitzer calls "compassion fatigue" — and it does so with great success.

The camp is free and open daily to the public from Oct 15 to 19 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. in Little Marina Green Park. During the exhibit, which has appeared on almost every continent and in more than a dozen US states, MSF aid workers act as tour guides, taking groups around the 8,000-square-foot simulation and explaining what refugees need to survive. Statistics come to life as visitors of all ages crowd into makeshift tents, taste high protein biscuits used by MSF aid workers to ward off malnutrition, and attempt to carry 44-pound jugs of water.

Maybe the reality of the global refugee problem will hit you when you try on the "bracelet of life," a piece of paper refugee children wear wrapped around their upper arms to identify their risk of starvation. Some 20 million children qualify for the most severe form of malnutrition — the bracelet’s "red zone," which notes a less than 110 mm (4.3 inch) upper arm circumference. "Can you put your arm through this hole?" a Doctors Without Borders postcard asks in stark white lettering above a thumb-sized cutout circle. "A child dying of starvation can."

The simple postcard has more impact than the sobering statistics on the back More than half the deaths of children under five are due to malnutrition — 6 million per year, or 12 children every minute. Or maybe after struggling to carry your daily ration of water — one five-gallon jug — back to your shelter, the fact that most Americans use 100 gallons of water per day will become more meaningful.

For Spitzer, the shelter area, where guides lead their tour groups into tiny canvas tents and ask them to try and lie down inside, is one of the most effective parts of the exhibit. "Twenty people in a tent and someone coughs — what’s the impact of that?" Spitzer asks. "Where are you going to cook? Where are you going to clean?" He relates the simulation to his experience working as a field coordinator in Liberia, where he was shocked at the refugees’ living conditions.

"There were 50, 60 people living in makeshift tents that were supposed to be transit structures," he told us. Unfortunately, due to lack of UN funding and organization, more and more refugees were forced to crowd into the small tents, resulting in numerous medical issues. "It was ridiculous … we take shelter for granted, but [refugees] are denied these basic rights."

In 2000, the Sacramento Public Health Department, whose staff often works with IDPs seeking shelter in the United States, sent its health care workers to MSF’s Los Angeles exhibit for training. MSF’s Refugee Camp exhibit is meant to shock.

Nevertheless, the tours are age-appropriate and strive to educate rather than scare. Elementary school students touring the water supply area focus on carrying the heavy jugs, while older visitors might learn about the sexual abuse risks facing young refugee women who walk long distances to collect water. Regardless of age, every visitor absorbs the information his or her own way. "Students giggle at the latrines at first," Spitzer told the Guardian, but grow silent when they are told there are only two latrines for 8,000 refugees. "They’ll ask, ‘Where is the school? Where is the playground?’"

Establishing a connection between the refugees and exhibit visitors is an important step toward social awareness. While you might not be that surprised to hear that Sudan is home to 5.8 million IDPs, did you know that 4 million IDPs currently live in Colombia? Probably not, because the US media rarely covers international IDP and refugee issues.

Iraq accounts for 2.5 million refugees; Afghanistan for 3.1 million more. Most of these people were forced to flee as a result of US intervention and warfare — although there is barely any US media coverage. Spitzer told the Guardian he hopes that if the public can "feel solidarity with the refugees" as a result of visiting the exhibit, people will start to question the lack of information provided to Americans. The purpose of the exhibit isn’t to receive donations or recruit members, but simply, Spitzer said, "to educate" — regardless of whether the attendee "goes on to volunteer or become politically active or simply raises consciousness among their friends and family."

The MSF Web site is full of comments from people who were in some way altered or illuminated by the tour. Apoorva Balakrishnan, a University of Manitoba student, wrote, "I felt in a slump about my medical studies — so much biochemistry and details that seemed so pointless. This exhibit reminded me of the real reason I am becoming a doctor: people."

Another note, signed "Alec," says: "Some people have yet to realize what happens in the world around them. I came to this camp. Now I am no longer one of those people. "

One anonymous author summed up his reaction in two words: "I’m speechless."