It's been said that the current Refugee Crisis is the largest displacement of global citizens in modern times. But it's hard to fully grasp how massive the exodus truly is without consistent visual confirmation and first-hand reports of how frightening this epidemic has grown over the last four years. And we all know how powerful an image can truly be.
The photograph of the young Syrian boy as he laid lifeless on the beaches of Turkey rocked the world in September 2015. His name was Alan Kurdi. He was only 3 years old. Some might say that photo became the turning point in the conversation about the Refugee Crisis. Others, like the child's father, feel otherwise. That's why Médecins Sans Frontières decided to do their part to keep the conversation going and created the traveling exhibit "Forced From Home," an interactive tour through the experiences of today's refugees and what is truly at stake at every stage of this crisis.
The free exhibition is currently making its way around the United States, but it began its journey in Queens in mid-September. Befittingly, the kickoff for the event coincided with the United Nations conference taking place in Midtown Manhattan to address the political, if not economic, reality of solving the Refugee Crisis. But MSF's (Doctors Without Borders, for us favoring the English translation) goal is not to discuss the political, economic or social realities of the crisis. They're only interested in the human face of it and asking others to join them in understanding how 65 million people came to live in detention centers, prefabricated housing, makeshift tents and discarded mattresses on the streets of Europe, Asia and Central America in the wake of an economic recovery that never arrived at their shores.
I ventured out to Manhattan last week to see the exhibit for myself at the Battery Park Esplanade. There, I was a part of a group led by a friendly, gravely voiced MSF tour guide named Joe, who not only walked us through the stages of displacement for millions of refugees, he also shared his own stories of working in Tanzania with thousands of Burundians seeking asylum as their nation teeters on the edge of civil war. After our initial introduction to who MSF is and how they came to be, Joe was quick to assure us that every refugee's journey is different, and throughout the tour, he made it clear, not one of them is in this situation because of their own wrongdoing, mistakes or failure to explore other options in their homeland.
Now I've supported Médecins Sans Frontières for years in my own nominal way, so I was aware of their work in nations all over the world, well before the Refugee Crisis reached its tipping point. But if there's anything I take with me after visiting the "Forced From Home" exhibit, it's that Joe and all the doctors, logisticians, volunteers and administration staff must have an emotional fortitude that I clearly wasn't born with. The exhibition is a simulation, nothing more. It asks us to bear witness to the extreme realities of the life of a refugee. Not just the children. Not just the women. Not just the Syrians. It's a hard pill to swallow, and it's one each and every member of MSF must swallow every day in order improve the lives of desperate people in an impossible situation. I couldn't be more humbled by their work, their strength or their generosity. Why? Because this is what I learned...
I know that's a lot to detail to take in, but I honestly left a lot out as the exhibit is a wealth of information about an experience none of us can truly know without visiting an intake center ourselves. One of the missions of MSF is to bear witness, that is to provide evidence of what they see in the field and share it with the world. With no political agenda of their own, many members of MSF risk life and limb to help bring quarter to those desperate, ill and afraid.
With the "Forced From Home" exhibit, MSF intends to spread the truth about the Refugee Crisis. They know that the face of the epidemic goes beyond the occasional photo of a tragic drowning or the stunned child who manages to live through yet another airstrike. MSF members are in the thick of it every day on 4 continents, seeing it up close and personal. There's no propaganda. There's no hidden agenda. Webinars, conference calls, newsletters and social media updates help communicate the gravity of the Refugee Crisis, but "Forced From Home" goes a step further, inviting activism, awareness and exhibition into the same space for a cause bigger than many of us can comprehend.
Of everything I learned during my tour of "Forced From Home," two things really stayed with me as I left the Esplanade. The first was Joe. Our intrepid tour guide from Long Island was not only the quintessential New Yorker sharing the truth in a relatable, yet insightful way, but he was a great representation of MSF itself. He's not a doctor. He's not a refugee himself. He's just a guy from LI who understand that he -- in his own words -- "won the genetic lottery" and nothing more. Those living in the camps aren't being punished for a crime. They didn't make bad life decisions. They were simply born in a nation at a time in history where their lives were in more danger staying put than leaving with only what they could carry. He even made a point to acknowledge that other than the Indigenous people of the U.S. and those who were forcibly relocated here to work as slaves, we live in a country every day that celebrates the bravery, sacrifice and ingenuity of immigrants as their ancestors. So why are we working so hard to deny that same perspective of those seeking sanctuary today?
The second thing that stayed with me was how I felt as I left the exhibition. I walked into "Forced From Home" with the pride of knowing I was someone who was no stranger to the realities of the Refugee Crisis. I read the email and hard copy newsletters MSF sends me. I read the articles published by journalists and bloggers. I support mixed-media artist Ai WeiWei's installations calling attention to the scope of the ongoing tragedy. I've even added the upcoming series "Filming At The Borders: Migrating to Europe Today" at Columbia Maison Française to my calendar. In the end, it all pales in comparison to what "Forced From Home" accomplished in 90 minutes.
I can applaud everything I saw members of MSF accomplishing at this amazing exhibit and share what I learned, but trust me, "Forced From Home" is something that can only be fully appreciated first hand. I know the exhibition isn't traveling to every major city in the U.S., but if it does come your way, I ask that you take the time -- just 90 minutes of your day -- to walk through the interactive tour. Learn from those who have witnessed the lives of refugees up close during this time of need. You won't be asked to make a donation. You won't be asked tell a friend. You won't be asked to write a 2,500-word blog post about your experience. You'll only be asked to open your mind and see everything you're not being told through mainstream media, social media and word of mouth. You'll be asked to simply join others and bear witness to those who have been forced from home.