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What it Feels Like to Be Forced From Home

In a new exhibition, Doctors Without Borders uses virtual reality to help visitors empathize with displaced people around the world.

Visitors listen to refugees recount their journeys on VR headsets. (Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF))

On a rainy Saturday in October, I’m standing in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., staring at what looks like a very small refugee camp. Nearby signs are plastered with facts: There are currently 65.3 million displaced people around the world, I read on one of them. In 2015 alone, 12.4 million were newly displaced, meaning they were forced to leave their homes that year and relocate either within or outside of their country. Other visitors huddle under umbrellas in twos and threes, stopping briefly to glance at the numbers, before coalescing into a bigger group and filtering in to an exhibition.

Organized by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières in French), the installation employs interactive storytelling techniques and virtual reality technology to help visitors understand a refugee’s journey—techniques that, research says, help build empathy.

My guide, a Greek woman named Chris Psarra, worked with the organization’s rescue teams off the coast of Lesbos last year, when the Greek island saw an overwhelming influx of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. When I ask her what her biggest challenge was at the time, she replies: “To get there in time and save people.”

As we started walking through the exhibition together, Parra asked me, time and again, to put myself in the position of a displaced person. Below are the questions I was confronted with:

Why would you leave home?

Our first stop is a big, dome-like tent that smells like wet hay. It contains a 360-degree video installation showing conditions in refugee camps from around the world. There are videos of Burundians living in rows of squat tents in the Nduta camp in Tanzania, and of refugees from Syria and Palestine in the Shatila camp in southern Beirut. They reside in densely packed, decrepit buildings with exposed electric wires and water pipes.“It’s ... like an above ground cave,” one Shatila inhabitant says in the video. “I miss the feeling of safety.” (Lebanon has a policy that forbids formal refugee camps, so these people have no basic services, no right to work, and no way to integrate with society.) We watch as a gay Honduran man waits for asylum at a  Mexican hostel, hoping to attain freedom from the constant threat of violence. And lastly, we hear the stories of Afghan migrants in the Moira camp in Lesbos, who travel a treacherous route to escape terrorist violence.

Visitors watch the immersive video footage from refugee camps around the world. (Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières)

But why depart?

As we leave the tent, Psarra and I discuss the “push factors” that compel individuals to leave everything they know behind. Be it war, famine, political persecution—in most cases, people are just trying extract themselves and their families from a place where death is not a distant possibility, but an imminent threat.

We arrive at the next exhibit: a wall with several plastic cards dangling from hooks. Each bears a drawing of an item. Psarra asks me to pick five belongings I would take with me if I had to leave my home in ten seconds. As she counts down, I scour through the options and start eliminating: I don’t need toys or baby food, I won’t take photographs (I have those on my phone), I don’t have much jewelry, and I don’t know how to play a guitar. Ultimately, I choose the water, cell phone, medicine, money, and passport cards. Psarra then asks which one I would leave behind if I don’t have enough space. I abandon the medicines.

Visitors make all kinds of choices, not knowing that they’ll ultimately have to leave some items behind. (Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières)

What would you lose en route?

When she was on the coast, Psarra recalls seeing several tiny, dark dots out on the waves. They were boats, often stuffed with way too many people. Some would sink under the weight. Others would topple over because the people on board had little knowledge of how to sail. Some didn’t have enough fuel to begin with. Often, the smugglers who had put these families on the boats didn’t provide proper life vests. That’s why many drowned along the way.

When Psarra and her team approached, the migrants would thrust the children towards them. “Take the children, take the babies,” she recalls them saying. One time, they grabbed a three year old boy, who had already died of asphyxiation on the overcrowded boat.

Psarra tells me all this in front of a raft, just slightly smaller than the one that little boy was probably on. As cost of travel, I drop another item: my water card.

What would encounter when you got to the destination?

The border is the first, often literal, wall that refugees and migrants come up against. Once they cross it, they’re in legal limbo, and that’s a big challenge. Some don’t have passports to begin with. Others don’t have time to get visas, or might not be able to. The laws dictating treatment of individuals seeking refuge and asylum vary from country to country. Sometimes, people are taken in by the host nations; the asylum process that can take many years. Often, they’re turned away, even before their claims are evaluated, Psarra says. To cross the border fence at the exhibit, I give up my money card.

What challenges would you face at a camp itself?

We walk through various elements of an actual refugee camp: a marketplace with processed food, containers of water, lanterns, and other daily necessities. There are hole-in-the-ground latrines, medical tents, and residential tents of different shapes and sizes. “It’s a whole city,” Psarra says. “People have been born and raised there.”

Psarra shows me a medical tent with “cholera cots,” used for patients so sick that they can’t carry themselves to the bathroom. (Tanvi Misra/CityLab)

Formal camps are often planned on a city grid, with sanitation and water infrastructure in place. But “there’s not as much planning as you’d hope to happen,” Eric Pitts, an architect who works as a logistician with Doctors Without Borders, tells me later. The land slotted for refugee camps is often on flood plains and even abandoned minefields—not the kinds of places you want to build on. And as more and more people flood into the camps, informal structures start proliferating at the fringes, making it hard for aid agencies to offer services.

The last stop is a tent where visitors can don virtual reality headsets and immerse themselves in the lives of three refugees. But before we get there, Psarra asks me to leave one last item card behind—the cost of buying something at the marketplace. By this point, I’m left with just the passport. “That’s the only thing you have to start a new life,” Psarra tells me. That makes me wonder if I’ve made the wrong choice.

I ask what people usually end up holding on to at the end. It really varies, Psarra replies. “There’s no right choice,” she says. “These are all horrible decisions.”

Forced From Home” has traveled to New York and D.C. Next, it’s setting up shop in Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.