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Exhibit offers visitors a taste of refugee life

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A rubber boat similar to those used by refugees.
A rubber boat similar to those used by refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea is displayed inside the Doctors Without Borders exhibit "Forced From Home" in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Commons Park in Minneapolis has been transformed to simulate a refugee's journey.

A new exhibit, called "Forced From Home," is now open in the park along the approaches to U.S. Bank Stadium. The medical relief agency Doctors Without Borders is presenting the exhibit to give visitors a chance to experience what it's like to flee war and violence and live like a refugee.

When visitors enter, they're assigned a legal status: Internally displaced person. Asylum seeker. Refugee.

A Doctors Without Borders guide holds up a mock ID card.
A Doctors Without Borders guide holds up a mock ID card that tells participants they're assigned a legal status.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"These are complex terms," said Mark Leirer, a guide team leader and a nurse who's been working with Doctors Without Borders. "They're loaded terms, they're terms that are often misused."

Leirer said the exhibit is meant "to create a human moment and to show that the people who are leaving these places and the people who are forced from their homes are people just like you and me. And it's probably for a good reason that they're leaving, but we have to understand what that is. And we can't judge and assume until we understand."

The "Forced From Home" exhibit opened this week and runs through Sunday. It focuses on the factors that push people out of their homes — as experienced through the displacement crises in Syria, Afghanistan, Burundi, South Sudan and Honduras.

Leirer said while the conditions that create such crises vary from war and violence to ethnic tension and economic instability, they're all connected.

"So it tends to mean that when one thing happens, it rolls into all the other ones," he explained. "And this is when that fever-pitch moment comes — when people realize that there is just no more chance of living in the place they're in, and the only real reality is to seek safety elsewhere by leaving."

Dolls made of scraps of material.
Dolls made of scraps of material sit outside of a model makeshift shelter that could be found in refugee camps.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Earlier this week, a group of sixth-graders from a charter school, the Mastery School in north Minneapolis, toured the exhibit. They encountered a display of cards representing household essentials. The students had only 30 seconds to pick five items they'd grab in a hurry, if they were forced to run.

"You must leave everything else behind," instructed a tour guide. "And we're going to meet over here. Let's meet over here for safety."

But the students couldn't hang on even to all of those meager possessions. In the rush of their escape, they were told, they had to drop first one card, then another. And they continued to drop items through the treacherous journey.

The idea is to get a sense of what it feels like to be shaken out of your bed and have to grab what you can.

The exhibit displays a boat similar to what thousands of people used to cross the Mediterranean into Greece during the height of the European refugee crisis. There is a pile of life vests representing those abandoned on the shore a couple of years ago.

A Doctors Without Borders guide holds up a card MUAC band.
A Doctors Without Borders guide holds up a card MUAC band, which stands for Mid Upper Arm Circumference.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Leirer uses each one of the stops as an opportunity to talk about the larger displacement crisis.

"These boats themselves, when they launch from the Libyan coast, if they do not encounter a search and rescue vessel like ours, they do not make it to land," he said. "They perish at sea."

From there, visitors move on to a makeshift border fence. People who were assigned an internally displaced identity stand on one side; asylum seekers and refugees stand on the other.

Leirer said this part of the exhibit explains what it means to be "stateless" — like the 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution from Myanmar last year. "This is incredibly important, because it's very poignant to the current moment," he said.

At the end of the refugee journey stand examples of so-called final destinations like a basic camp made of scraps of cloth and plastic sheeting, as typically seen in Mogadishu, or a more modern tent, as typically seen in France.  

A panel discussion with Doctors Without Borders is set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Minnesota's Coffman Memorial Union.