Exhibit illustrates refugee experience

Lindsay Guentzel

It’s only 9 a.m. and already the park is swarming with people. The playground is full of preschoolers, the walking paths are crowded with joggers and the refugee camp is ushering in its visitors through the gated fence at the edge of the park.

An unusual sight for any Minneapolis resident, the exhibit, “A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City,” opened Thursday for its four-day stay in Minneapolis’ Loring Park.

where to go

refugee camp exhibit
What: Doctors Without Borders informational exhibit, tour
When: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 27 to 30
Where: Loring Park, Minneapolis
For more information, visit the Doctors Without Borders Web site

The exhibit, an 8,000-square-foot mock refugee camp, was started by Doctors Without Borders in France in 1995 and has traveled through more than a dozen countries.

Last year’s U.S. tour attracted nearly 20,000 visitors and Denisse Reyes, the exhibit coordinator, is hopeful they will exceed last year’s numbers.

“We are going to have over 20,000 visitors, maybe 22,000 people,” she said, adding nearly 10,000 people visited the camp during their stays in Milwaukee and Chicago earlier this month.

The camp will head to Houston after leaving Minneapolis, ending its tour Oct. 14 in Dallas.

Upon entering the wooden gate at the north end of the park, visitors are greeted by experienced aid workers who guide them through the exhibit. The doctors, nurses and logisticians share their own experiences while explaining the challenges that refugees and internally displaced persons face when living in a refugee camp.

Visitors are ushered through a series of stations, learning about everything from water purification systems to malnutrition and vaccinations.

Henry Debusman, an aid worker who worked in Angola, explained to a group how clean water is made accessible in refugee camps. If workers aren’t able to pump and purify water on site, water trucks are brought in to the camps, he said.

“It’s pretty chaotic,” he said.

Because diarrhea is the leading cause of death of children under 5, it’s important for camps to have purified water so displaced persons aren’t forced to drink out of the contaminated rivers and lakes surrounding the camps, he said.

According to the Doctors Without Borders Web site, medical teams try to give children under 5 a vaccination for measles, a disease that kills more than 500,000 children a year.

Brainslav Strecansky, an aid worker who volunteered in Mozambique and Sierra Leone, said the organization can vaccinate 600 children per hour.

Mothers are given a vaccination card for each of their children when they enter the camp, he said.

Vaccinations that aren’t provided by the government are bought locally or from other nongovernmental organizations, he said.

Strecansky also demonstrated how a child’s malnutrition level is measured using a device called a mid-upper-arm-circumference bracelet.

By measuring a child’s upper-arm circumference, an aid worker can recognize the most severely malnourished and then admit them to a therapeutic feeding program.

The therapeutic feeding program is used in the most extreme cases of malnutrition, he said.

The program uses Plumpy Nut, a prepackaged food made with peanut butter, milk and vegetable oil that costs $3 per day per child, Strecansky said.

Anh Tran, a neuroscience and psychology junior, said she is excited to go and visit the camp this weekend. As a co-chairwoman for Biology Without Borders, a University student group, Tran said Doctors Without Borders approached the group about helping promote the refugee camp.

Because the two organizations share a common goal, the Biology Without Borders members were excited to help, and started promoting the camp at the University and other local colleges, she said.

“We have a group of Biology Without Borders students going to the camp on Saturday,” Tran said.

With 33 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide, Doctors Without Borders board member

Unni Karunakara said it’s important for members of the community to see what a refugee camp is like so they can better understand the plight of a displaced person.

“I’ve seen camps from 8,000 to 80,000 people,” he said. “We are not there to make judgment – we are there to provide medical care.”

Karunakara also said civilians need to understand the difference between a refugee and an internally displaced person.

A refugee is someone who has fled from their home country in search of safety, while an internally displaced person is trying to find safety from conflict within their own country, he said.

Bare Yogol, a Doctors Without Borders aid worker, was forced to flee to the Kenyan border after fighting erupted in Somalia 15 years ago, and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for nearly eight years.

“It’s difficult to imagine being forced to leave one’s home,” Yogol said. “I basically lived the most undesirable life that I could have imagined.”

Karunakara also said when people are forced to leave their homes and countries, it can be traumatizing.

“They are running with whatever they can get their hands on,” he said. “Most of the time, they have no idea where they are going. Flights can be days to months, and many times families get separated.”

The Doctors Without Borders Web site shows that in 2005, more than 12 million people were displaced in African countries alone. There are more than 5 million internally displaced persons in Sudan and more than 2 million in Colombia and Uganda.

The Web site also shows that of the nearly 12 million refugees worldwide, 6 million are from the Middle East.

Awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, the organization has provided emergency aid to people in more than 70 countries.

Open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the camp will be in Minneapolis until Sunday and is free to the public.