Traveling Exhibit Shows What It's Like To Be A Refugee
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's an effort to make you know what it feels like to walk in the shoes of a refugee. More than 65 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes. The U.N. says they're fleeing violence, persecution, disasters. Doctors Without Borders hopes to show Americans what that life is like. They have a traveling exhibit they're taking to cities across the Northeast. NPR's Nurith Aizenman joined the tour when it stopped in Washington, D.C.
AHMED ABDALRAZAG: Hi, guys. How are you?
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Our guide is Dr. Ahmed Abdalrazag, who normally works in a refugee camp in Tunisia. And he tells our little group to imagine that war has just broken out. We're going to have to leave our homes, our town. Then he takes us to this wall hung with plastic cards listing our most essential possessions. And he makes a startling announcement.
ABDALRAZAG: So what will I ask you guys, in 30 seconds, pick only five items.
AIZENMAN: In other words, we have 30 seconds to go through the cards and pick just five things to take with us. Abdalrazag holds up a stopwatch.
ABDALRAZAG: OK. In 30 seconds, go.
AIZENMAN: There's a mad scramble for the cards.
ABDALRAZAG: Five items only.
AIZENMAN: Rita Kietzer - she's a 55-year-old homemaker - drove two hours from Virginia just for this tour. She looks preoccupied.
Was it hard?
RITA KIETZER: Yeah, a lot of choices.
ABDALRAZAG: Ten seconds.
KIETZER: I had to really look it over.
ABDALRAZAG: Two, one - you're out of time.
AIZENMAN: Abdalrazag inspects our picks.
ABDALRAZAG: What did you get here?
AIZENMAN: Cash, blankets, medicine. He notices no one brought shoes - possible mistake. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War when Abdalrazag was a kid, Saddam Hussein's government started bombing his town in southern Iraq. He and his family had to run.
ABDALRAZAG: So we walked and we walked. We walked for 10 days - 10 days non-stop. I remember I had flip-flops on my feet. On the 10th day, I had nothing on my feet.
AIZENMAN: No matter what you bring, he says, you're going to lose it fast - to pay off smugglers or you'll get robbed. To illustrate this, Abdalrazag holds up a white box. Everyone has to throw in one of their five items.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS FALLING INTO BOX)
AIZENMAN: I'm seeing passports, motorcycle, cellphone.
ABDALRAZAG: OK. Let's move to our next station.
AIZENMAN: We're led to one of those inflatable boats.
ABDALRAZAG: Yeah, let's jump in.
AIZENMAN: It's super cramped. Rita Kietzer looks dubious.
KIETZER: It feels too real now. I don't want to - I don't know. Part of me doesn't even want to sit in here 'cause it's too real. Like, I don't want to go. I want to go home, not here, you know.
AIZENMAN: Abdalrazag says often a boat like this will just be a makeshift raft, plastic tubes glued to wood.
ABDALRAZAG: Sometimes the glue is not dry yet, and the boat starts to break in the middle of the sea.
AIZENMAN: But not to worry - for an extra $200 dollars on top of our thousand-dollar ticket, the smuggler will sell us a life vest. He holds up an actual example of what smugglers are selling in the Mediterranean. Except...
ABDALRAZAG: It's fake life jacket. It's not real.
KIETZER: You - if you had that on, it would actually pull you under the water? Oh, my God.
AIZENMAN: Next station - we're at a refugee camp now, checking out the facilities - the latrine we're going to share with 50 other people...
ABDALRAZAG: It's basically is a hole with a plastic plate over it.
AIZENMAN: This can filled with the very little amount of water we're going to be issued every day...
ABDALRAZAG: This is for showering, for bathing, tooth-brushing, cooking, everything - only two gallons.
AIZENMAN: The small tent we're going to live in with two, maybe three, other families.
KIETZER: Ooh (ph).
ABDALRAZAG: Hot, huh? This is really how it feels from inside.
INSKEEP: And every time we moved to a new station, we're asked to give up one more of our possession cards.
KIETZER: This lady and I both gave up our medicine at the same time.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All I have left is my passport (laughter).
AIZENMAN: What goes through your head as you decide what to keep?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's very scary, losing a little part of yourself each time.
AIZENMAN: As the tour concludes, Abdalrazag says he has one final thought to share.
ABDALRAZAG: No one should live this life.
AIZENMAN: Please, he says, it's not ok.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Thank you.
ABDALRAZAG: Thank you for coming.
AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.