Sunday, October 23, 2016

Forced from home

Windswept. Cold one moment and blazing hot the next. Fear of capsizing and being swallowed slowly by the turbulent sea or a consuming, gnawing anxiety that the night will close on you before you’ve reached a place where you and your children might be able to sleep a few hours before you started off again. Leaving with no idea of where you are going except that it is away from everything you’ve known, everything that you have owned. Grabbing a few things, if at all possible, before you set off on this unplanned journey without destination.

Forced from home. That’s the title of a travelling exhibition from Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) that catapults you into the lives of the millions of displaced persons, from Honduras across Mexico, from South Sudan circling inwards desperately in search of refuge from ethnic conflict, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Burundi to camps in Tanzania, and yes, the thousands fleeing Syria through Lebanon and Yemen, or across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach an increasingly unwelcoming Europe. MSF, like so many other humanitarian efforts around the world tackling the somehow unending list of challenges producing tragedy of unimaginable proportions, has a huge task before it. Of generating resources for work through the creation of empathy at different levels. The exhibition is currently traveling through six cities (well, five, with two locations in New York) in an attempt to raise awareness and understanding of forced displacement, which currently is estimated to affect some 60 million people worldwide.

I arrived at the gateway to the exhibit at Long Wharf, at the Boston Harbour, on a cold and wet afternoon in October. The sky and the grey sea seemed a fitting backdrop to the exhibit, which was organized in a cluster of tents along the pier. 

At entry, I was given a blank identity card marked “refugee” that I was told to hang on to as I simulated the journey of someone fleeing from home. I joined a group of fifteen other visitors, to be led through the exhibit by MSF worker Fraz (from Pakistan, who coordinates logistics for the organization) who had until recently been working with relief camps in South Sudan.

After being shown a 360-degree video that served as a whirlwind tour through the landscape of displacement, and the realities of the interim camps where refugees (those who cross borders) or internally displaced persons (those who remain within their countries), we were each asked to pick up five cards representing things we would grab if we had to suddenly leave home on an indeterminate journey.  

The piles of life jackets--more than those who survived

We grab five items to take on the journey
We had less than a minute in which to make our choices. I picked up the following: passport, money, blanket, medicines and mobile phone. We then had to get into a boat (an actual inflatable boat) where Fraz explained the machinations that families have to go through to negotiate the voyage, facing both natural and human challenges, having to exchange one of their precious items for a life jacket (which MSF has discovered is very often fake). MSF has three rescue boats that patrol the Mediterranean and has so far managed to rescue thousands who were stranded at sea—often without food, water, or any GPS devices that could help them navigate. As we left the boat, Fraz asked us to discard one of our possessions. I decided to give up my mobile phone (not wise, I later realized, as connectivity is one of the most important things to keep on a long journey). 
Squeezed into a boat, on a turbulent sea

At the next station, a randomly erected chain-link fence that divided those of us who had cards stamped "refugee" from those who had "IDP" brought us face to face with the power of labels and the ways in which they limit opportunity and create threat. Couples--and families--who had differently stamped cards found themselves on different sides of the fence. Internally displaced persons are not entitled to the same rights as refugees, under international law, and countries may not be liable to offer them the same protections. This has ramifications beyond the political—although, one might argue, each one of these situations that produces homelessness and statelessness is essentially political, so even the most individual of experiences reflects the long arm of dirty international power-mongering.

Fenced off by words

The trail of displacement takes us then inside the fence of a camp; we come face to face with the conditions (of course, sanitized of the smells and sounds and the overpowering air of disease and conflict just around the corner) of displacement—the tents within which whole families are squeezed, the jerry cans of water that they have to make do with, the makeshift shops where favours are traded (you lose more of those precious possessions), until you reach the small glimmer of hope (well, succor if not hope) in the form of MSF—where, thankfully, services are rendered without expectation of exchange. 

But after traversing this far, I am left with only one of my five cards—what I have held on to is my money. I have given up warmth, connectivity, identity and preventive medication. Would this be the order of priority if I am in a situation that causes me to flee home? I’m not sure. But I can only begin to imagine what it might mean.
That's as many jerry cans of water as a single person
in the developed world uses; as opposed to one for a family of four in a camp.
Trading post in camp--note the solar panels and mobiles

Fraz explains then how MSF works within these conflict-ridden zones to bring some measure of medical aid to communities, particularly children and the wounded. He talks about the US and coalition-led  airstrike that leveled the MSF-aided hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, where several humanitarian workers were killed, along with patients and other hospital staff. In Syria, he added, hospitals have been “targeted” in the bombings by the Syrian government, and this has made it extremely difficult for organizations such as MSF to function. “We do not have any operations in Alleppo anymore but we do send in medicines and supplies,” he explained.

While MSF declares itself to be apolitical, it is hard to stay out of taking a political stance in this tragic landscape. MSF has recently decided not to accept any more donations from the European Union, taking a stance against the EU’s hypocrisy in dealing with the refugee crisis. “On the one hand, they are giving Turkey funds to deal with the refugees but on the other, so many of their members are closing their borders to these distressed people,” said Fraz.

At the end of the exhibit, you are left feeling winded. Sixty-five million people are living this reality. And several million more are expected to join this number over the next months. A man from Burundi, now in a camp in Tanzania (soon to be closed) said, “Yes, I have to worry about food, and water, and disease…but I don’t have to worry about bullets.”

Empathy is a strange thing. It doesn’t seem to be a big ask at the individual level. If we immerse ourselves in stories, we can at some level and to some small extent appreciate, even feel, the desperation, fear and pain of those who are experiencing it in the flesh. We are moved enough to donate and sign petitions and lend our voices to rallies and to cry inwardly and feel that sadness in the gut. But what happens to this empathy when it moves upwards into governments and decision-making bodies? Those too are composed of people who have minds and hearts and the ability to empathise. But approvals for drone strikes and closing camps and withdrawal of funds for medical aid or adding more funds to the war machinery…empathy has no place in such spaces.

Clearly, there is value in making us feel. If organizations like MSF are to operate without compromising their ideals to the economically driven pragmatism of governments, such exercises in empathy generation are necessary, so that more support comes from the public rather than governments.

But the question remains: what happens to that empathy when it moves from the individual to the institutional level?

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