A child’s stained clothes fluttered from a clothesline, polka-dotted pants swaying above muddy, trash-strewn puddles. Inside a tattered tent, a weary-looking man pointed to a mound of sticks piled in the corner, and a teenage girl in a purple sweatshirt turned to follow his gesture.
“This is our only source of heat,” the man said, and the girl’s eyes widened — even though the man wasn’t really talking to her, because she wasn’t really standing in this room with him.
A raging sea, an orange raft bobbing on its swells, crowded with people. A tangled web of exposed wires snaking through the squalid Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. These images — projected in 360 degrees — bombard visitors to a new Doctors Without Borders exhibition on the Mall with a piercing look at the global refugee crisis.
“We left everything behind,” a bearded man says sadly, his face larger than life against the wall. “We were hoping to come back soon.”
When the international medical charity created its new “Forced From Home” exhibition — which runs through Sunday on 15th Street Northwest, across from the Washington Monument — it aimed to do more than educate visitors about the plight of refugees. It wanted them to feel it, to the extent possible within a one-hour tour.
“People don’t leave their home unless they absolutely have no other choice,” said Jason Cone, executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States. “It’s really an attempt to put people in the shoes of these people — what would you do if you only had a matter of moments to decide what you could take with you?”
As visitors arrived Saturday morning — the free exhibit’s first day open in Washington, after opening last month in New York — they were handed cards assigning them a country of origin and a status: refugee, internally displaced person or asylum seeker.
Then they were shown a wall of plastic cards, each displaying something essential or valuable — prescription drugs, water, blankets, children’s toys, a passport — and given 30 seconds to choose which five items they would take if they had to flee their homes.
“Faster, hurry!” said Ahmed Abdalrazag, a tour leader and physician with Doctors Without Borders. “Ten seconds left.”
As the clock ran out, one woman was still clutching six cards.
“I decided at the last minute I needed medicine,” she explained. Abdalrazag shook his head sternly.
“No,” he said. “You can only have five. I have to take one.”
“Okay,” she said glumly. “Then I won’t have my medicine, and I’ll die.”
Abdalrazag just nodded.
By the end of the exhibit, they would have only one item left. At various points in a tour meant to replicate a refugee’s journey, they would be asked to exchange these mock belongings to pay for their passage or safety.
The number of displaced people worldwide reached 65 million last year, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — surpassing the 60 million mark for the first time since World War II.
But it is the individual faces and stories that have resonated more intensely than the hard-to-comprehend numbers. Photos of Omran Daqneesh, a 5-year-old Syrian boy left covered in blood and ash after an airstrike that killed his brother, sent a wave of grief rippling across social media, prompting one American boy to write to President Obama, asking whether the wounded child could come live with him.
So “Forced From Home” focuses on the details: a crumpled plastic bottle fashioned into a child’s toy. A ramshackle latrine, just a hole in the ground shielded by a plastic curtain. A fake life jacket, like the ones human traffickers sell to unknowing refugees fleeing Syria by sea.
“These people are just like you and I,” said Vito Castelgrande, project coordinator for the exhibit. “We hope the primary takeaway is just to humanize them. We talk about millions and millions of people displaced, but they are millions and millions of individuals, with names and stories.”
As he guided his group through, Abdalrazag shared bits of his refugee story. He was displaced twice, he said: first, when his family left their home in Iraq during the 1990-1991 Gulf War; then when they were driven from their new home in Tripoli, Libya, after the eruption of the Arab Spring and fled to Tunisia’s Shousha refugee camp.
He stooped slightly inside a “family-size” tent, the sort of shelter that might actually be shared by a couple of families. “I lived in a tent like this for four or five months,” he said. “The thing that I missed all the time was just a wall, a wall to lean my back against.”
The tent made a profound impression on 14-year-old Dan Beckstrand of Springfield, Va., who came to the exhibit with his parents and his 16-year-old sister.
“I’m a very private person,” Dan said. “I love to go to my room and close the door. Not having that would really wear me down.”
His father nodded. At the end of the tour, Scott Beckstrand said he was struck mostly by the helplessness of living in such a place. “The total lack of control, over anything,” he said softly. “And how hard it would be to maintain hope.”
But Africa Stewart, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Doctors Without Borders and one of the exhibit’s tour leaders, has seen hope persist through unfathomable trauma and loss. Former refugees and displaced people have visited the exhibit, she said. Stewart noticed that when they must choose which theoretical belongings to keep, they always grab the plastic card with an image of house keys. And it’s always the final card in their hands at the end of the tour.
“If you have your keys, there is a chance you’ll come back,” she said. “And to them, just the possibility of going home again, that is worth everything.”