The tiny huts, the small latrines and the white tents inside metal barricades looked startlingly familiar even though they were part of a replica of a refugee camp. I felt a little jolt in my heart as I stood in line Thursday to get inside the “camp” set up in Loring Park in Minneapolis. This was one flashback, to my time in a camp in Kenya, which I never thought I’d relive here.
But that dose of reality is precisely how organizers want exhibitors to feel. Jennifer Vago, a registered nurse with Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization said: “People see these images everyday on TV and on magazines, and they just turn the channel/page. By visiting here, we hope we offer them an experience to relate to.”
Dubbed “A refugee camp in the heart of the city,” the three-day exhibit is part of a national tour including Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston and Dallas. Doctors without Borders, better known by the French initials MSF, said they hope some 6,000 people will visit the Minneapolis camp.
Visitors get a two-hour guided tour, during which they get to lay down on a mat on the floor of a hut, get a feel of how to use latrines with no lights and visit “tent clinics,” where aid workers weigh babies, examine kids with big bellies, and treat malaria and cholera patients.
All is done with astonishingly very little equipment. For the 33 million displaced people around the world, Vago said that’s hardly a surprise. On a daily basis, most refugees stand in long lines for a maximum of five gallons (if they’re lucky) of purified water and small rations.
“The average American uses 100 gallons a day. We take these things for granted,” said Vago, who just got back from her third tour in Sudan.
Re-enactment is one thing, but living in an actual refugee camp is totally another. Vago said visitors of the camp will get a feel for the sanitized, safe version. I quickly found myself agreeing with her. During my short stay at a notorious refugee camp in Kenya, after I fled Somalia, I recall improvising a bed out of bushes and a mat, hoping that a killer snake didn’t make me its next prey.
But even under these unbearable conditions, it wasn’t always depressing—at least not as bad as it feels now, when a mock camp is set up hardly two blocks away from where I live. I remember watching the World Cup soccer games in the camp, and actually playing soccer with a ball improvised out of socks filled with bushes and dirt.
Jamal Adam tells of a similar experience. He spent six cruel years in a refugee camp in Kenya, after the civil war in Somalia. While speaking with our guide Thursday, he recalled his uncle telling the family upon arrival in the camp that they will return to Somalia within six months.
“That turned into six years. I left, but some people are still in that very camp,” he said in a sobering voice. “Still, some people found meaning in life. They joke, they play. Some found spirituality as a coping mechanism.”
Back at the mock camp, I overheard two young women comparing the mock latrines to the ones used in their actual refugee camps. “This one has a roof,” said one of them to the other, chuckling. “At our camp, it was open air, and no running water!”
Leaving the mock camp wasn’t easy for me either. The exhibit included a giant stop sign at the gate. Though no one was guarding the door, it reminded me of the real camps, where one needs to show an identification card to leave or enter the camp.
Though I have lived in the United States for seven years now, this exhibit took me back to an uncertain and delicate time in my life. For those of us who left, it’s a remarkable reminder of how lucky we’re. But then, I can’t get over with the fact that millions are still living under those conditions, some of whom I know their first and last names, and I played soccer with.