Through the Eyes of a Refugee
During many Fridays at The Washington Center, we have an afternoon session based off of our chosen professional tracks. These sessions utilize the full educational potential of Washington, D.C., bringing expert speakers into our classrooms and taking us out of our classrooms into unique areas around Washington, D.C. As a student in the International Affairs professional track, I've already seen and toured many interesting sites, like the Saudi Arabian embassy and the headquarters of the Organization of American States, but this week I was given the opportunity to explore a hands-on exhibit right by the Washington Monument. This past Friday, I experienced "Forced from Home," an interactive exhibition/tour run by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières; MSF). While the exhibit is now packed up and on its way north to my hometown of Boston for a stay between October 15th to the 23rd, I would be remiss to skip over blogging about such an intense, educational and mind-opening experience.
The entrance to the "Forced from Home" exhibition run by Doctors Without Borders.
"Forced from Home" is a free exhibition that exposes you to the lives of refugees and the hardships that refugees face. An MSF aid worker leads groups of people through the exhibit, providing personal stories from what they have seen working on the ground along with a general narrative explaining - as well as such nightmares can be explained in words - what a refugee experiences from first fleeing their countries to winding up in ramshackle refugee camps. The exhibition highlights and promotes awareness of the experiences of the over 65 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world, leading you through many powerful storytelling elements. Everyone is given a card with details such as their identification number, date of issue, date of expiration and nationality (mine was from Burundi) to connect us as an audience to the greater story of refugees. I don't wish to spoil the experience for anyone intending to visit the exhibition themselves anytime soon, but I will say that I spent time watching a 360-degree video, on an inflatable raft, and walking through a family tent during my journey.
The refugee card I was given at the entrance to "Forced from Home."
Fair warning: from here on out, the rest of this blog post will be about my personal experience with and reflections on this exhibition. I don't want to provide a full walk-through of what I saw and did because of the aforementioned spoilers. Regardless, I'm sure that you can find a summary of someone's experience or a detailed review online should you really want to know what to expect from a visit to "Forced from Home." I don't believe that you should go seeking this out though. This experience is extremely moving and best felt with your own heart rather than through the lens of another.
Now I would not say I am an apathetic person - but I would also not call myself the most empathetic of people, either. I am certainly empathetic and care a great deal for social justice as evidenced by my experience serving with AmeriCorps, but I also shy away from thinking too much about certain tough topics. To an extent, I isolate myself from tragedy because, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, it is very easy for me to become overwhelmed and paralyzed by the grief and suffering of others. Consequently, I frequently find myself waffling between believing in two quotes that have rather different approaches to humanity and empathy.
"No man, proclaimed Donne, is an Island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies."
— Neil Gaiman, American Gods
"One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself ..."
— Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The dichotomy presented by these two distinct schools of thought - everyone is an island versus everyone is connected - arose to the forefront of my mind as I meandered through "Forced from Home." A common refrain spoken by my tour guide - a friendly, passionate Norwegian man named Kim with years of experience on the ground with MSF - was "We know better." Yes, we know better, but what can we or I do with this knowledge? I've exposed myself to these stories but I can't even pay my school loans or remember to eat breakfast on a daily basis. What could I possibly contribute other than my sympathy and attempts at empathy? What purpose does it serve for me to take in all of these emotions and experiences?
The answer is that I do not know. I am not selfless or brave enough to do anything about the refugee crises blanketing our planet right now. I'm ashamed but I'm honest: I probably will never do anything firsthand to alleviate the human suffering that has been caused by complacent people like me. What I can do though is offer a fellow intern a pack of tissues when I saw him looking disturbed and teary-eyed at our first stop in the exhibit, watching a 360-degree film about the experiences of diverse refugees. I can share my sketches of actual artifacts from refugee camps that once belonged to a malnourished little girl and a war-hardened old man. I can allow myself to feel bile bubble up my throat when I think of Kim detailing how smugglers sell phony life jackets stuffed with hay and pebbles to children braving the open sea for a chance at survival - and the consequences of when water is rapidly absorbed by said life jackets, dragging down and drowning innocent children alive.
I can write, I can share this blog post, and I can ask you to visit this exhibition, too. It's not hugging refugees the moment they climb out of a packed boat and it's not providing clean water to a camp, but it's something I can do. I only ask that you do what you can do, too.
"Forced from Home" questions human apathy and the concept that we are all isolated from each other with a vengeance. You will probably cry or at the very least feel so disturbed that you have to turn your back to your tour guide at some point in your tour. It hurts. It hurts a lot. However, sometimes ignorance isn't bliss and I think that this is one such occasion where you should make an exception.
I still don't know if I believe that I am a human island or a human connected to other humans in a great web. Perhaps I am and we all are both, simply islands with drawbridges that we can use to protect ourselves when the world outside becomes too much.