Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Doctors Without Borders present: Forced from Home: An Interactive Exhibition

Doctors Without Borders presents:  Forced from Home: An Interactive Exhibition Designed to Expose the Realities of the Global Refugee Crisis (Oct. 30-Nov. 5)

Just across from Lake Merritt in Oakland, 10th Street parking lot of the historic Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center which houses the Calvin Simmons’s Theatre, neighbor to the Oakland Museum of California and Laney College, sits a refugee camp.  Forced from Home is a 10,000 square-foot outdoor exhibition hosted by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international humanitarian aid organization which delivers emergency medical care around the world.  MSF, privately funded so that its reputation as nonpartisan remains in-tact, is in Oakland through Nov. 5, 9 AM to 5 PM.  MSF staff, not all doctors or nurses, lead free tours which offer visitors a glimpse into the lives of unprecedented 65.6 million people who are internally displaced, refugees in a foreign land, or in limbo— stateless (like the Rohingya). Statelessness also reminds me of the Indigenous people of this land whose tribes are no longer recognized.  Unlike being stateless, those without tribal affiliation are legally disappeared.
When one joins a tour which takes minimally 1 hour to complete—longer if you stop to watch other virtual stories from Mexico, Afghanistan, Southern Sudan or Iraq, write postcards to workers abroad for the holidays, times when family is missed most or postcards to legislators to support policies that promote peace.  At the start of the tour you are given a card which tells you the country of origin and whether or not you are a refugee or an internally displaces person or other categories of persons who wind up in MSF camps. 

My card said I was from the Republic of South Sudan, a new country.  I had an ID number with a stamp: Internally Displaced Person over my photo.  There was a line for my gender and DOB, date of issue of the card and expiration date: 13/May/2027. I know Dinkas from Southern Sudan who now live in Santa Clara County and in Oakland, so I felt comfortable in my identity; however, I did not know what I was going to encounter next.

Professor Sabir with students from her English class ,
 College of Alameda,  at Forced from Home with guide
After being assigned a country, we then face certain situations which cause us to lose our homes.  Exhibition themes: “Push Factors”: War, religious conflict, food shortage, safety can make people flee. “On the Move”—How do people, once displaced navigate their journeys. Then there is “Legal Status”: What rights does the fleeing person retain as she crosses borders? “Basic needs”: How do families find food, shelter, maintain basic hygiene and access technology as they move from place to place? “Health Care” is of course an important issue. Many ailments caused by poor sanitation and poor nutrition.  Then of course, “Shelter” is primary and hardest to secure for multiple reasons. By the time we get through the list, we can see how all factors are linked to one another, some more than others. Visit

I don’t know how refugees are greeted at an actual encampment, but there are people wearing MSF vests at the gate who hustle us to our next stop. Questions assault our ears as we try to figure out what this place is. I don’t remember too many smiling faces greeting me hello. 

After our identity is established, we are then led to a tent where we watch a virtual 360-video—the people on the screen are life-size and talking right next to you as you turn to watch all the stories.  The people are from Lebanon, Mexico, Tanzania, and South Sudan, regions where the largest populations of displaced persons currently reside.   We listen to an Iraqi father seated with his wife and daughter share how he lost his home and now all he has is a wood-burning stove.  The video and others like it, plus the large photos of hospital trauma centers, people on the run—smoke from explosives visible in the  back

Elvis (MSF) shows Wanda around opening day
ground, emphasize how dire and urgent the needs are for so many people. Imagine people living just like us here in Oakland, finding themselves without basic necessities. Imagine being confined to a camp because the country where it is located says you cannot enter, despite UN rules which state such is unlawful.  Generations of refugees live in one camp for decades.  The average stay in a camp is 17 years, I learned on my second tour. 

It is crazy to think that “84 percent of refugees are hosted by developing regions.  The top six refugee countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda, and Ethiopia.  The six wealthiest countries, including the US, host less than 9 percent of the world’s refugees” (UNHCR, Oxfam). 

MSF builds hospitals like one in Afghanistan, highlighted in a large photo. The hospital is rubble. It was bombed, aid workers and patients killed.  I can see the sadness in Elvis’s eyes as he looks at the photo of a place he helped build, now gone.  He tells me how it is his job to make sure the MSF staff are safe. Sometimes he has to have staff pack up—all except perhaps 1 doctor. 

Elvis, Kenyan, gave me a private tour—with MSF since 2003, he is the person who goes into the region first with a doctor, logistics/mechanic person, to do an initial survey and set up.  He told me how the tents pre set-up are labeled for the kind of care needed in a particular area.  The medical tent we visited was for cholera. It had special beds made from canvas, easy to clean with a hole for the bucket to catch the diarrhea.  Chlorine bleach is the disinfectant of choice.  He said that there would be someone at the entrance and exit of the tent to spray the person with antibacterial and to keep the germs from spreading. 

On the other side of the ward was another section with beds covered in mosquito netting. Presented with different scenarios as Dinka from Southern Sudan, I had to think about what I might take with me in the five minutes I had before I had to leave—I chose bottled water, a blanket, my keys, a cell phone and a motorcycle.  Elvis told me that people would probably take the motorcycle from me or try to jump on it, so more often people walked.  I also learned the only money that spends internationally are American dollars. 

At the next stop, I had to pay the person to get through. He wanted my shoes, so I had to leave them.  We passed by buses, canoes or boats.  Some people walked. Others hiked.  Boats built for 20-40 people were carrying hundreds. The fake life jackets were lined with cardboard and the floors were often filled with excess fuel -- gas and seas water make an acid which burns the skin of the women and children seated in the bottom of these boats.  These treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea were often unsuccessful.  I decided to keep walking, even though a bus ride was an option if I could raise the money-- $2000 US?!  

Sometimes an escaping family would make it to a border and the police would not let all the family members cross. This happened to me. I could not leave, but my cute daughter was allowed to cross.  Without access to media or international attention, people trapped at the borders often die.  The government does not supply food, water or any kind of humanitarian aid.  I worried about my daughter who was allowed to cross. I hoped she would not be kidnapped or sexually trafficked. 

By the time I get to the end of the journey, I don’t have much left to barter with. I notice that some of the other refugees or IDPs nearby have their passports. I didn’t grab mine when I left. Perhaps I should have instead of keys.  I thought about grabbing photos, but my photos are saved in Dropbox and Google Drive so I can access them from a cloud. 

When I get to a camp, the first thing I see is a store.  Elvis says, no matter where he is in the world and no matter how bad it is, someone sets up a store where refugees barter for goods. The cell phone charging station uses solar power.  I see a toy car too. All I have left is a blanket and water bottles. I wonder about their liquidation value.  Perhaps I can offer a service like letter writing or babysitting. 

The first station Elvis’s team sets up is for clean drinking water, hand washing, and a toilet.  Americans use a lot of water daily, while the average refugee uses about two gallons.  He asked me if I wanted to try swatting in the stall—I remember all too well the toilets in Africa where one swats to do her business.  There is no tissue--your left hand serves that purpose. 

What makes MSF so successful is its integration of services with community members who are hired to work alongside international aid workers.  From Kenya where he worked in HIV services, treatment and diagnosis, to his work internationally, Elvis says that he could not have the kind of job he has now at home.  His loyalties would be split, so he does not work at home where presently there is unrest over the election results.   Dadaab in Kenya is the largest refugee camp in the world, home to majority Somali refugees. The Somali refugees are trapped. The Kenyan government will not let them into the country. 

The other larger camp seemed to be in Southern Sudan where for a long time, the environment was stable.  However, Elvis told me of a bombing there which killed a lot of people.   MSF built these more permanent shelters in Sudan and has been a presence there for years.  MSF has had a long presence in Congo where it still provides aid. Elvis said they, MSF, treats everyone—the aggressor and the victim.  MSF also advocates for the displaced persons, refugees and migrants who are not able to find safety.  They ask larger governments to step up and provide sanctuary for displaced persons. 

The irony of Oakland’s own burgeoning homeless or Internally Displaced population is not lost on me. I think about the poor to no response by the current municipality to the needs of citizens who do not have adequate housing or sanitation. The sanctioned camp on Peralta and 35th Street, recipients Winter 2016-17 of compassionate care, must have exhausted civic supply given the poor maintenance or removal of port-a-potties, handwashing facilities and regular trash and garbage pickup.  Cold weather is coming in now and with it winter storms and illness for those exposed to the elements. San Francisco started inoculating homeless residents against hepatitis C, caused by inadequate sanitation.  Alameda County has not been proactive on this potential public health emergency.  Our homeless populations are also “Forced from Home;” however, unlike those refugees escaping violence and persecution, these are American citizens have certain rights, among them the right to shelter and food and safety. The problem is bigger than one city; however, if the cities in the Bay Area collaborate and plan, suffering can be mitigated and long-term solutions put into immediate action. 

DACA and immigrants without the proper documents face deporting.  At the Jamaican Independence Day Dinner in Berkeley, the Honorable Audrey Patrice Marks, US Ambassador, spoke of young Jamaican men at risk for deportation. This is a big issue on the East Coast where larger populations of African Diaspora live.  Somi sings of her neighbors-- new residents, on her current album which she brought to Oakland in concert late October.  She speaks of how connected she feels to Diaspora in Harlem, historic names lining boulevards. However, these names are all that is left of the African American community which made this place home.  Priced out of the market, Harlem is no longer an indigenous black geography.  While it is great there is a newer black population inhabiting these sacred spaces-- the reason why Africans can move in is because they have the income to afford to do so. Once again people have been “forced from home.”

Listen to a radio interview with two MSF clinicians: Luella Smith, MSF Emergency Physician and Otto Gonzalez, MSF Nurse at Wanda's Picks Radio Show.

Put Your Ideals into Practice:

For those interested in working for MSF there is a recruitment information session, Wed., Nov. 8, 6-7:30 p.m. at Berkeley Public Library, North Branch, Community Meeting Room, 1170 The Alameda, Berkeley. Visit


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