By Jill Christensen
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Nestled between downtown Seattle’s West Elm and Whole Foods laid a tent made of nylon that acted as a home, and a protein bar made out of peanuts that acted as a meal for malnourished children.
These are only a few of the many items that were on display earlier this month at the interactive exhibition, Forced From Home, hosted by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Held Oct. 2-8 at the Discovery Center in South Lake Union, the free travelling exhibit illustrates the life of a refugee, covering topics ranging from why people would want to leave their homes to how people survive on their journey.
Push factors that can cause people to flee can consist of violence, government conflict, or persecution. For example, in the last couple of months, over 5 million Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh due to an outbreak of violence in Myanmar. Part of the tour is to look at what causes a crisis like this, so we can better understand and help those who have become displaced.
With hour-long tours led by MSF aid workers who have worked in various refugee environments, visitors got a hands-on experience that allowed them to gain insight into what it is like to be displaced.
“I really loved that it wasn’t just a self-guided tour. I loved that there was an actual tour guide who is from the field that has actually been there and has first-hand experience,” said Janelle Wee, an attendee.
At one of the first tour stops, visitors were asked to pick out five items that they might want to take with them on the go. As the tour progressed and the visitors continued their journey, they continually have to give up their belongings in exchange for things like transportation, food, and safety.
“Bearing witness is one of the founding principles of MSF and that is essentially what this exhibit is all about. We want people to understand the difficulties that people have when they need to leave their homes,” said Casey O’Connor, MSF project coordinator.
From sitting on a boat that refugees might use to cross the Mediterranean, to watching a 360-degree video that transports attendees into a setting like a basement in Lebanon, people can start to imagine the difficulties and hardships that displaced people face every day.
“One of the problems is we don’t know enough. We hear and we make assumptions about what’s going on and it’s not the same as seeing it,” said Sanjay Makanjee, an MSF aid worker and guide.
In attempts to bridge this gap and help people understand what is currently happening to refugees in our world, Forced From Home draws attention to how prominent displacement is in our society.
Since Aug. 25, more than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from the Rakhine state to Bangladesh. The Rohingya are in desperate need of food, shelter, and water. Existing camps in southeast Bangladesh, resources are becoming exhausted as they are not equipped to handle such a large influx of refugees. This leaves the displaced to find shelter at makeshift camps that are not supported by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which only means fewer resources and less support.
“It’s really impossible to imagine what that movement of people has been like in just a month,” O’Connor said. “In terms of infrastructure that gets set up when there is a displaced population, you have to find clean sources, you have to build latrines, you need to have food, and you need to have shelter.”
With people living in such a densely populated area, one of the main concerns is the spread of disease, said the UNHCR in a report earlier this month.
“Part of the problem is that the Rohingya Muslims are stateless,” O’Connor said.
Not only do the Rohingya Muslims have inadequate access to food, shelter, or water, but they also do not have citizenship in any country. In 1982, the Rohingya were denied Burmese citizenship, further perpetuating the Rohingya citizenship crisis.
In the exhibit, visitors experienced the negative ramifications that impact refugees when countries close their borders.
“A little bit of knowledge goes a long way, so if we can just give people that knowledge and empower them to make their own decisions about it,” Makanjee said.
While there was a “take action” tent at the end of the tour, guides do not push or pressure people into becoming a volunteer or to join MSF. The main mission was to help visitors gain a deeper understanding of displacement and life as a refugee.
Leah Battersby, MSF logistician, said, “These people are the same as us, they are parents, they are children.”
Jill can be reached at email@example.com.