One day after discovering Donald Trump would be America’s president for the next four years, I found myself wandering aimlessly around Independence Mall in Philadelphia. I had been numb since reading the notification of the election results on my phone, and I was giving everyone the side eye. How could this have happened? Which one of these people allowed it to happen?
I kept noticing signs advertising an event called Forced From Home, and I decided to check it out since I had some time on my hands. Forced From Home is a traveling exhibit that tells the stories of refugees and displaced people. The exhibit was presented by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), but I knew them as Doctors Without Borders. I only learned about the organization’s existence a few months ago when friends were looking for a legitimate place to donate for Hurricane Matthew relief efforts in Haiti. Doctors Without Borders was continuously noted as an organization on the ground in Haiti doing real work for the citizens.
Before the tour began, I received a postcard that held information about a Honduran asylum seeker. Honduran citizens, like the people of other Central American countries, are fleeing due to the ongoing violence associated with gangs and drug cartels. There are very few options once a person is recruited into a gang or cartel, and all of them carry danger. One can stay and become a member of the gang, risk one’s life by refusing any involvement, or flee to safety. There were other people in the group that were assigned countries of Syria, South Sudan, Burundi, and Afghanistan.
We began inside a large dome, where we watch 360 degree videos of refugees telling their stories. The videos showed the refugee camps, the despair, and the perseverance of people who have been victims to their country’s turmoil.
This was an interactive exhibit, and our guide for the hour was Hope. Hope is a nurse employed by MSF, and had most recently spent time in Tanzania assisting refugees of Burundi who fled from their country due to political turmoil. Hope gave everyone in our group 30 seconds to pack five items that we would bring with us as we fled our country. I chose a passport, money, shoes, clothes, and a phone. I later discover that I should have made wiser selections because my passport was useless, and a new country wouldn’t accept my Honduran lempiras. Before we were whisked away, each of us had to give up one of our five items as payment for the escape. I gave up my phone in order to get to a small raft where I had to give up another item just to get on the boat with several others. I gave up my shoes.
Hope went on to explain how these smugglers take advantage of refugees’ need to escape – placing too many people on a small raft to make more money and giving them fake life jackets to pretend that they care. That same weekend, more than 340 refugees died in the Mediterranean Sea in attempt to escape their home countries. MSF maintains rescue boats in those risky areas with medications and fluids, but they can only do so much.
We continued to a new country where more problems faced us. Just to step one foot on the new land, I had to give up my clothes. Now we determined whether we were to be considered asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, or refugees. I don’t quite remember the distinguishing difference between each status, but refugee status is most important because it provides legal protection under international law. As a Honduran asylum seeker, I would have to prove that there was a legitimate fear of returning to my country before I could gain refugee status. The process could take years.
In the meantime, Hope explained, MSF provides individuals with their basic needs at refugee camps that tend to be overcrowded. Proper medical care along with food, water, and shelter is the priority. Refugees get a ration of 2 gallons of water per person per day, along with food such as beans. Once they can get good physical health, mental health is another importation issue to overcome. As a Honduran asylum seeker I may have been kidnapped and tortured by a drug cartel, so mental health care would be an essential service for me. Many of these people have witnessed fatal violence with their own eyes, women have been raped, families have been destroyed, and hopelessness has arrived.
When the exhibit was over, the only item I had left with me since I fled the country was my passport. Hope went on to explain how Americans value their passports and see it as a powerful tool, but it may not be as essential for refugees or displaced people. Others in my group held on to medications, a phone, water, and old photographs.
While I bought a t-shirt at the end of the exhibit to support the cause, I overheard a middle-aged woman talk about the importance of making donations to organizations like MSF, especially with you-know-who being our new President-Elect. She pulled out her checkbook to make a financial contribution that I could only imagine was way more than the $10 I spent on the t-shirt.