The immigrants in Daley Plaza
Doctors Without Borders sets up interactive ‘Forced From Home’ traveling exhibit in downtown Chicago
By Ted Cox
A refugee camp has been set up in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.
It’s not actually for some of the estimated 65 million people driven from their homes globally — more than at the end of World War II — but as part of a traveling Doctors Without Borders exhibit intended to show what those millions have to go through on a daily basis just to survive.
“Forced From Home” is an interactive exhibit that attempts to re-create the experience the world’s migratory populations are subjected to: what drives them from their homelands, what are among the few precious things they might take with them, and what might they be willing to barter, among those possessions, to gain passage or to buy safety or just to get essential food and water.
“This exhibit is really to raise the awareness, generally, of people who are migratory and displaced across the world,” said Keith Longbone, project coordinator. “The numbers are increasing and for various reasons — whether it’s political conflict, resource wars, or just the feeling that their own government isn’t attending to their needs.”
It’s intended to instill “empathy, understanding, and awareness” in those who go through the exhibit, basically re-enacting what a refugee or displaced person might have to endure. “If people are aware,” Longbone said, “they’ll take their own actions. They’ll find out more and possibly get involved with MSF,” the generally accepted global abbreviation for Doctors Without Borders under its French name of Medecins Sans Frontieres.
According to Longbone, the volunteers who set it up last weekend over a day and a half “have nearly all worked in the field before,” setting up the same Trigano tents and treatment centers that are placed in Daley Plaza for the rest of the week. In fact, he’s been called back into action later this week to head to Tajikistan on the way to an MSF camp in Afghanistan.
The free exhibit runs through Sunday, open in two four-hour sessions each day: from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4 to 8 p.m. It actually takes about an hour to go through the exhibit, as visitors are cast as refugees or migrants and then have to wind their way across borders and over seas stopping along the way for encampments or treatment centers set up to resemble genuine MSF sites.
The first thing to recognize, Longbone said, is that refugees chased from their country by war and other causes, such as those leaving Syria for Europe, have recognized rights established by the United Nations. Other migratory populations, such as those being chased around southern Sudan by warlords and others in the governmental chaos, have no real rights to better treatment — aside from simply being humans in need.
“Refugee camps can be quite lovely,” Longbone said without a trace of irony. He’s been to one in Sudan with 80,000 residents, where they have a sense of civilization among the chaos.
But he quickly added that camps anywhere can be overrun by thugs and bullies, who might steal the handles off water spigots and charge to “rent” them by the minute, or who might charge exorbitant amounts to, say, charge a cellphone — an essential device, not only to stay in contact with others, but because it’s used across the Third World to send money in place of currency.
All camps struggle to deliver basic needs — safe water, sufficient food, protection from the elements, and basic medical care — before the fortunate arrive at some form of permanent residence in Berlin or even, yes, Kansas City or elsewhere in the United States.
Longbone is a Scotsman who’d worked in Africa and the Middle East before joining MSF in 2009. “I applied because it reflects my values,” he said. “It is independently funded, and I think it has great relevance. What it does is not replicated by anybody else.”
The exhibit, again, is open through Sunday, but there’s also a Doctors Without Borders panel discussion on the topic “Seeking Safety Is not a Crime” scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston. Light refreshments will be offered at a reception beforehand starting at 6:30 p.m.