In the shadows of refugee camps


Jennifer Vago, a registered nurse and field worker has served 10 missions with Doctors Without Borders in different refugee camps. From Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia to Sri Lanka, Vago says the stories from the refugees are the same; full of suffering, hunger, frustration, helplessness, rape and the fear of death.

Doctors Without Borders, a French international medical humanitarian organization exhibited “A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City” in Loring Park, Minneapolis at the end of September. It highlights the untold sufferings of 33 million refugees, and people uprooted by wars. Staff at the exhibition also share their personal stories, and work to visitors.

The exhibition shows photographs of people threatened by violence, forced to flee from their homes, and deliberately targeted by rebels or local militias. The interactive exhibit asks the public to imagine they are refugees, and displaced in the camps worldwide. It also includes photographs of refugees in camps full of insecurity.

Hospitals are full of the wounded just as 15 years ago. “Somalia is violent and full of refugees,” said Bare Yogol, a former Somali refugee, who now works as a nurse and administrator at IFO Camp Hospital in Kenya. “The exhibit brings back memories and for some to imagine the life of a refugee and what to do to help them.

The refugee camp at Loring Park shows shelters, food distribution systems, cholera treatment methods. Doctors Without Borders, which works in 70 countries, is also known by its French name Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF. The organization gets a huge sum of its funds from individuals and public contributions, rather than from governments.

“When masses of people are uprooted by conflict, they are at grave risk, particularly when regrouped in a camp like this one where disease can spread rapidly and violence may continue to be widespread,” said Dr. Unni Karunakara, a Doctors Without Borders board member.

Dr. Karunakara says the problems are faced by its staff in camps frequently attacked by militias and rebels in countries such as Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sri Lanka. In Iraq, Doctors Without Borders, runs medical care away from the Comfort Zone to help those who can travel to its medical facilities.

The main goal of the exhibition is educate people about the life and sufferings of thousands of people living as refugee and displaced camps in countries like Chad, Sudan, or Somalia without proper medical care, food, and clean water, said Stephanie Davies public education director.

The humanitarian organization is the last resort for hope, for refugees, and displaced forced out of their homes especially in countries ruled by warlords, and dictators. In some of these countries, Doctors Without Borders has to negotiate with authorities to provide medical aid to dying refugees.

It is a small response, Vago says, for instance to a huge problem for Sudan or Somalia children and women who withstand the worst of the carnage that engulfs their countries. In many countries, government denies access to people. The irony is that sometimes even the warlords and government authorities who create these untold sufferings depend on the aid organization directly or indirectly for medical help.

Aid workers become sometimes become targets for warlords and Doctors Without Borders is forced to move its field workers for what Karunakara describes as calculated informed risk.”

About 20 aid workers now administer medical care in Chad and Sudan. Many have been forced to leave the camps for lack of security. The Loring Park refugee camp gives an idea of what people are going through in conflict zones. In some of these camps, women and children are been raped or killed by rebels. “You are forced to leave everything that you worked for and love to live the most undesirable life,” says Yogol, as recalling his days in one of the camps in Kenya. One of the staff talked about the violence, sadness, and fear as she walked under a 120-degree hot sun in a camp in Sudan looking for people to help. Thousands of refugees have to leave their homes as a last resort. Occasionally, refugees are threatened with voluntary or forced repatriation by host countries, even though there are ongoing wars in their countries of origin.

Shortage of food and medicine is a constant problem Doctors Without Borders faces. In some area, it is the only witness to where refugee rights are eroded, and atrocities that other organizations cannot see. In such cases, Doctors Without Borders communicates with the international community and educates people about the situation.