A new exhibit on the National Mall called ‘Forced from Home’ shows what it’s like to walk in a refugee’s shoes brought a Virginia woman to tears.
“This is my country, I don’t want you in it,” said a tour guide walking through, acting as if visitors were one of the world’s 65 million people displaced.
The United Nations said this figure is unprecedented, now more than the number of people displaced after World War II.
On Saturday, the harrowing stories of escape and survival got a little more real at a refugee camp exhibit near the Washington Monument.
“Let’s go, let’s go because people are coming to get us,” said another tour guide.
It started with people getting a country of origin like Honduras, Iraq, Sudan; countries where mass numbers of people have fled mostly due to war and violence. In 15 seconds, visitors have to pick five of the most valuable items and use those items to try and pay for their safety along the way.
Then, each got into an inflatable boat that tour guides said are sometimes packed with eight-times the amount of people they should be holding.
“Once you pay the trafficker, he does not care about you anymore. All he wants is your money,” a guide said.
They explained the dangers on the water, everything from sun exposure to leaking fuel.
Some are stories we have heard, accompanied by images we have seen on various news reports, but actually sitting on an inflatable boat is what made a Virginia mom cry.
“I was thinking about if that was my family, the comforts that we take for granted every day. Just the privacy, the safety, the ability to make a choice about what I’m going to do today and how I’m going to do that and just feeling like if my children were in danger and I had none of that, it would just be horrible,” said Tamara Beckstrand.
Beckstrand came from Springfield, Virginia, to go through the exhibit with her family.
The tour continued onto land. Once visitors get to the land, there is another question: Are you considered a refugee, a migrant or can you apply for asylum?
Tour guides explained the difference and then took visitors inside different refugee camps to show what people are given to survive.
“It’s very personal and you can’t help but be affected when you are exposed to what these refugees are experiencing, you know, every day,” said Dr. Jim Bengston, a tour guide and member of Doctors Without Borders.
Doctors Without Borders or Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF for short, is the group hosting this exhibit.
Bengston gave some of the tour from his own perspective. He said he served refugees in Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
Bengston said it’s a complicated issue, a world crisis, but the point of the exhibit, he said, is simple: to spread awareness.
“As a country, we are extremely fortunate,” Bengston said. “I don’t think that is something to feel guilty about, but I also think we should all try to find a way to help our fellow human beings.”
The exhibit is in town until Oct. 9. To learn more about the exhibit, click here.