Inside The Refugee Camp At The Foot Of The Washington Monument

Sabrina Chang, 30, didn’t know much about the global refugee crisis. “I think I could spit out headlines that I’ve seen, but that’s about it,” she says.

But then she found herself — for a moment — in refugees’ shoes. Chang visited Forced From Home, a touring interactive exhibition hosted by Doctors Without Borders, the medical aid group. The exhibit is a re-creation of a refugee camp, about the size of half a school gymnasium, with a store, a hospital and places to sleep. It began its run in New York last month and is at the foot of the Washington Monument until October 9, then moves to Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The goal is to encourage empathy for the some 65 million people who have fled their homes due to violence, conflict or war. Stories about refugees are usually “about numbers — numbers of refugees, numbers of death,” says Emilie Lamartina, a nurse who has volunteered with Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, in France and South Sudan and is a guide at the exhibit. “But beyond each number, you have life. You have someone.”

Shoes? Medicine? Water? A visitor chooses five things to take on her journey as a “refugee.”
Victoria Milko/NPR

Items that a refugee might take are printed on plastic cards. Visitors get 30 seconds to make their selection.
Victoria Milko/NPR

Visitors like Chang are given identity cards from one of five countries — Afghanistan, Burundi, Honduras, South Sudan and Syria — and asked to imagine the experience from the refugee’s perspective in a series of stations that illustrate their journey.

In one part of the tour, visitors board a plastic, inflatable boat — the kind that many of the 300,000 refugees who arrived to Europe by sea used to cross the Mediterranean in 2016. The flimsy raft is designed to hold eight, explained a tour guide, but often takes many, many more.

In another section, visitors walk through the canvas tents that many refugees live in. The makeshift dwellings are small yet intimate, with human, homey touches like handmade dolls and hand-foraged brooms that give an idea of how refugees make a home under extreme conditions.

The MSF guides remind visitors that some refugees live in camps for years. The Dabaab camp in Kenya, for example, has been around for more than two decades, and there are people who have lived there nearly as long.

“I guess I always think of [refugee camps] as a more [of a] temporary thing,” says visitor Evan Ardiel, 32. “Then I get reminded here that this is generations of people living in these camps.”

What it’s like inside a two-family tent: A cloth divider to split the space in two, canvas mats, small mattresses.
Victoria Milko/NPR

MSF recognizes that no traveling exhibit can truly convey what it’s like to be a refugee. “Is there a way to gather [all the traumatic experiences of a refugee] into an exhibit like this?” says John Lawrence, president of the board of MSF USA. “No,” he says, explaining that the exhibit isn’t intended to shock or traumatize visitors.

That said, it’s a pretty good simulation — just ask someone who’s been there. Ahmed Abdalrazag, an MSF aid worker and exhibit tour guide, has been a refugee himself. He fled his native Iraq in 1998 and bounced around northern Africa, discovering MSF while in Tunisia, after escaping Libya during the Arab Spring.

To him, the exhibit has been nostalgic. “Each station represents, for me, a personal experience, whether in the life of a refugee or working with MSF in the tent like [the ones here], which is how it looks to live in tents,” he says.

The “camp” is hemmed in by fences and barbed wire.
Victoria Milko/NPR

And even though the exhibit is thousands of miles from the real camps, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, visitors say they’ve gained new insights into the refugee crisis.

“You hear about it so much in the news that you almost get desensitized to it,” says Chang after her visit. “Things like this help you get your butt in gear and [make you] want to do something.”