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Traveling exhibit seeks to build U.S. empathy for refugees

Battery Park City, NY - Visitors take a 1 hour tour around the "Forced From Home" exhibit in September 2016. (Photo: Elias Williams/MSF)

Today is, unfortunately, a World Refugee Day like no other.

Never before in the history of the world have so many been on the run, more than 65 million people, most of them displaced from their homes due to conflict or other threats to their welfare.

The global refugee crisis is exacting a terrible toll on families, children especially, yet Americans remain sharply divided when it comes to whether or not we should be coming to their direct assistance and offering them refuge.

That’s why this fall, the advocacy and relief organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) plans to relaunch its traveling outdoor exhibition on the crisis. MSF’s goal is to enhance the American public’s understanding of the plight faced by the world’s more than 65 million refugees and internally displaced people. Whether it will make a positive difference in American attitudes toward refugees is open to question.

MSF’s multiyear public education campaign, known as Forced From Home, will appear this time in cities across the west coast, mostly fairly progressive ones, offering visitors a chance to learn from experienced MSF aid workers that have supported displaced populations all over the world.

“Every citizen of the world should know about this,” Melanie Barthezeme, an MSF field administrator and exhibition guide, said to Humanosphere. “… And for the American people to have a sense of what we do in the field and what’s happening for migrants and displaced populations and refugees is something they should definitely try to relate to.”

Barthezeme has worked as an HR Coordinator and Field Administrator in countries such as South Sudan and Ethiopia, where MSF was running maternity and malnutrition programs for refugee and internally displaced populations.

As a guide for the exhibit last year, she said, visitors were very receptive and supportive of MSF’s mission, and that “a lot of people were surprised. You could see that during the exhibition that they were realizing exactly what it means [to be a refugee].”

With guides such as Barthezeme, visitors navigate the 10,000-square-foot exhibit as a displaced person from Afghanistan, Tanzania, Honduras, South Sudan or Syria. The tour is interactive, incorporating films and virtual reality technology to illustrate the feeling of being cramped in a rubber raft lost at sea and the medical problems that many endure in their pursuit for safety.

Since the exhibition ran last year, the conflicts fueling the global refugee crisis have not significantly changed.

Famine and illness afflict the millions of children and families running from civil conflict in South Sudan; violence and poverty still drives refugees out of Central America’s Northern Triangle countries in record-breaking numbers. In the Mediterranean, refugees from Syria and countries in North Africa are still fleeing in droves, embarking on treacherous journeys with the hope of seeking asylum in Europe.

Numerous NGOs and advocacy groups have, like MSF, used a variety of strategies to foster empathy for refugees, and public figures from Pope Francis to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have asked countries around the world to open their doors to refugees.

Some research indicates that American’s attitudes towards refugees are fairly resilient. One poll found that in the U.S., views on a wide range of refugee issues haven’t changed much since last year; a majority of Americans even said they had become more sympathetic to the plight of refugees over the intervening months – a rate higher than many other countries included in the poll.

Still, advocates worry about shifting public attitudes toward the refugee crisis. A new YouGov survey commissioned by humanitarian organization Islamic Relief Worldwide found that roughly half of Americans, Germans and Brits think their countries should take in fewer refugees, despite record-high displacement globally.

In these and many other Western countries, refugees have became the subject of heated political debates over the past few years, sharpened by concerns around terrorism and the media’s tendency to portray refugees as threats to economic security.

Since taking office, U.S. President Trump has followed through on attempts to issue a “travel ban”, suspending the issuance of visas to residents of six Muslim majority countries as well as suspending the U.S. refugee program.

Barthezeme acknowledged that the people who do choose to better understand the daily challenges refugees face — such as by attending MSF’s exhibit — likely are already people who support MSF’s mission and other efforts to mitigate the crisis.

“Someone that’s going to this exhibition, I mean, they already know what they’re getting into…”  Barthezeme said. “I don’t think we were really meeting people who weren’t agreeing with [MSF’s] mandate.”


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at