Forced from Home: What would you leave behind?

Interactive exhibit offers perspective on refugee experience

“You can choose five things to take with you,” Melanie tells us. “You have 30 seconds. One…,” she begins, “two…three…”

Item board
What will you choose to bring with you? What will you be forced to leave behind?

Some of us start grabbing items in a panic. Others take the more pragmatic approach. Money and passport, of course. Food, water, medicine. But what about shoes?  Is there no room for our precious family photos? Our dog is like a child to us—how can you ask us to leave him behind?

We are at the Doctors without Borders’ Forced from Home Interactive Exhibit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The exhibit has already toured New York, Boston and Pittsburgh, and is now in Philadelphia until Nov. 11.

Melanie is tasked with guiding us today. We are a group of high school students, members of a local church, and two office workers on their lunch break.  The closest people we have to refugees are a couple of tourists from Oregon. Nevertheless, the exhibit is designed to replicate the experience of refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced persons—in a convenient one-hour tour.

We perch precariously on the side of a rib—a rigid inflatable boat—and try to imagine it packed with two, three, four times as many people. How does a boat like this not capsize in dangerous seas?

We pass through to the tent that houses the health clinic.

This mobile health clinic is prepared for cholera victims,
This tent is also a mobile health clinic and is prepared to receive cholera victims.

“Ewww,” says one young girl when she realizes why the “cholera bed” has a hole in the middle.  The bucket shower and squatting toilet elicit similar shudders.  We move into our new home—a cramped tent we share with another family. There isn’t a lot of protection from the elements. There is a near-constant danger of fire from the primitive cook stove. We are told we could be here for months, years, even decades.

At every stop of our tour, we are forced to give up one of our precious items. It’s all pretend, of course, and yet we seem to agonize over each choice. One woman cheats, holding on to her last two possessions until she is caught and forced to give up her cell phone.  At the end, another woman shows off the money she held onto—proud of making the wise and practical choice.

Melanie shakes her head. “You should have chosen jewelry, ” she tells her bluntly. “What good is money from South Sudan?”

All of the guides at the exhibit have been in the field at one of the more than 60 countries Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) serves. The doctors, nurses, and other professionals come from all over the world as well. Dr. Ahmed Abdalzarag, a neurosurgeon from Iraq, joined MSF in 2011, when he was himself a refugee living in Libya.

Dr Ahmed Abdalzarag, refugee and neurosurgeon.
 Dr. Ahmed Abdalzarag

“I’ve been on the move for 25 years,” he tells us. “When I was a refugee, I wished someone would talk for me.  I feel now that I am the voice of the voiceless.”

“I’m here to tell you that nobody wants to leave home,” he continues, “They love their cities, their neighborhoods. They love speaking their own language. The people who are fleeing their home countries are running because their home countries aren’t safe. They are fleeing for their lives.

Dr. Abdalzarag is called away to lead another tour just as our guide Melanie joins us again. She’s licking a large ice cream cone, and obviously enjoying it immensely. She smiles a bit sheepishly.

“I don’t often get to have ice cream,” she confesses in her beautiful French accent. “Even if you can find it, you can’t trust that it’s okay to eat.”

Melanie works on the administrative side of things. She has just returned from Haiti. It was, she acknowledges, a very difficult mission. In the course of her six years with MSF she has been on a lot of difficult missions.

“At the end of each one, you think, ‘no way I’m going through that again,’” she explains, “And then, after a few weeks, you say, ‘actually, I am going back.’”

Melanie finishes her ice cream cone and wipes her hands clean with a paper napkin. “We want to be out of a job,” she says. “I want to be unemployed. But when I see the children of Haiti, of Central Africa, of South Sudan,  I know I am so far from being unemployed.”

We sit for a moment in silence in the thin shadow of the Washington Monument. It’s a beautiful fall day in the city. To our right, the alabaster dome of the U.S. Capitol gleams in the afternoon sun. Hundreds of important women and men work there, making decisions—or not making decisions—that affect millions of the people Melanie and Dr. Abdalzarag work so hard to save.

“I don’t think I could do anything else right now,” she admits with a sigh. “You feel so useful. You don’t get that feeling very often in life, do you?”


The world now has more refugees and displaced persons than at any time since World War II.  Refugees resettled in the U.S. urgently need our support.

Congress is proposing funding bills for Fiscal Year 2017 that would flatline refugee resettlement funding at 2016 levels, just as our country begins welcoming 110,000 refugees this month—35,000 more refugees than planned for in last year’s budget. 

 Please join our partners in urging our mayors to request more funding for refugee resettlement.


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