A refugee camp springs up in Minneapolis

The camp is located in Loring Park as part of a traveling exhibit.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Nestled among the trees near the tennis courts, crowds of people gather in front of a few white plastic tents. One tent holds food rations, another is set up to provide vaccinations for children. There's also a latrine.

As they wander around, visitors get a sense of what it is like to live in a refugee camp. They can sample high protein biscuits, the food given to malnourished people.

Jennifer Vago
Jennifer Vago is a registered nurse. She has been working at Medicins Sans Frontieres since 1995.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

They can also hear from people who have been in camps.

Their tour guides are international aid workers themselves. Jennifer Vago is a registered nurse who worked in emergency rooms in the United States before joining Doctors Without Borders -- most recently in Southern Sudan.

"Always there are those people that you think 'My gosh, if I were in Minneapolis, this person could be saved, but we just don't have what it takes here to save this person,'" Vago says.

The exhibit is traveling through five cities in the U.S. and just came from Chicago. Vago says the visitors who stop by learn a lot, but they're also moved.

"I get the impression from especially the schoolchildren, that it's a field trip, it's a day away from school and there's all this interesting stuff to look at -- big water bladders and tents and things," says Vago. "But, you can see as they listen to the message and start thinking about it, they become a little bit quieter and more reflective."

Students take a tour of the camp. Other visitors include passersby and groups of healthcare workers. Adult refugees also come to the camp to show their children what they went through.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

After touring the camp, Brie Armstrong, 17, a student at the Plymouth Youth Center, says she was shocked by how few choices people have.

"I was surprised about how small the tents that they live in, and how they don't got so much water, they don't got so much food and they eat out of packages," Armstrong says. "It's different from what I read about and seen, ... seeing how it is."

Of course, real camp conditions would be much tougher than the ones in Loring Park.

Team leader Jennifer Vago says there are many aspects of refugee camps impossible to capture -- like scorching heat or bitter cold, the reality of life in cramped quarters amongst hundreds of absolute strangers, sometimes during civil war.

Latrines, like this one, are vital to preventing the spread of disease in camps.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

"I worked in a displaced persons camp in Liberia in 2003 and people were shooting into the camp all day long almost every single day. Mortars actually dropped down onto us inside the camp," Vago remembers.

Vago points out that internally displaced people are at the mercy of their own governments, so in places like Sudan, even in the camp, people may be after you.

"You may be snatched, beaten, bullets might fly, you can never recreate that dive for cover and maybe there's not fear and insecurity is something you just can't recreate," she says.

Doctors without Borders is not just for doctors and nurses.

Karel Janssens tells a group of visitors about vaccination in camps.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Karel Janssens was an engineer in Belgium. He left his office job to do logistics for Doctors Without Borders. In the field, he arranges for the transport of water and other supplies and sets up the tents so the medical professionals can work.

Janssens points out that even in such dire conditions -- rife with malnutrition and disease -- there are triumphs in the camps, too.

"It's quite horrible to see the children. As fast as they go down, they also go up. They go from very thin creatures to fat, active babies. That's very nice to see."

The refugee camp in the heart of the city exhibit will be in Loring Park through the weekend.

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