By Tassie Hadlock-Plitz, Senior Seminar Faculty
No amount of classroom learning could prepare the Human Rights Senior Seminar class for their simulated experience at the Forced From Home exhibit sponsored by Doctors Without Borders. After riding the Metro Expo line from Wildwood to the Santa Monica Pier, the students followed Dr. Ahmed Abdalrazag through an hour-long tour that simulated the journey that 65 million people to date have taken to find safety far from their homes.
Dr. Abdalrazag began the tour by telling students about five countries around the world where thousands of people are fleeing for their lives and the lives of their children. Then the students were given several minutes to choose what they would take if they had to leave home immediately. Over the course of the interactive experience, students were told to leave behind one item at a time—medications, food, clothing, money, passports—until they had nothing left. Then they wrote reflections about how it felt, and offered responses like: “It was really an eye-opener to be put through the exercise of quickly selecting items we could take; it simulated the distress one feels when fleeing for safety,” and, “When the few things we could take had to be left behind, it showed me how little-to-nothing the refugees, internally displaced, or asylum seekers have.”
In addition to walking for days, most people must cross large bodies of water wearing unreliable, costly life vests and travel in overcrowded boats meant for simpler passage. Dr. Abdalrazag asked our group—small in comparison to the groups of refugees who often flee this way—to crowd into one such boat. As students guessed how many people should and could fit inside, he held up life vests and challenged students to guess how much refugees were forced to pay to acquire one. Students grappled with the understanding that smugglers put up to 60 people in one small boat and that they profited from the deaths of refugees. “I can’t believe refugees were sold fake lifejackets stuffed with cardboard and straw,” remarked one student.
They visited the different kinds of tents found in camps—some for housing, some for medical services. Even in the most spacious tent shared by several families, they were shocked to learn how many years people live in dirty, sandy refugee conditions with so many people and such limited resources.
After spending about 40 minutes in the exhibition, the students were offered a water break. Once they had eagerly quenched their thirst, they saw (and one got to hold) the container of water that represented a day’s supply. One student wryly commented, “That was strategic. We just drank a whole family’s days’ worth of water.”
Although Dr. Abdalrazag asked a range of questions, and the students knew many of the answers, they were curiously quiet, unlike their normal, inquiring classroom behavior. When asked about why she thought no one was speaking up, one of the students responded, “It’s a lot to process.” And of course, she was right. I had been exposed to human rights work for years and knew what to expect; yet for these students, being confronted with the magnitude of this crisis was a shock.
After the visit, students were asked to reflect on something they will never forget about the experience. Some wrote about the profound impact of hearing first-hand experiences of the doctors: “I was shocked by what he went through,” noted one student. It turned out that the doctors who were leading the “tours” had all been refugees or asylum seekers. Other students reflected on the severity of this global crisis, which was made more real by seeing and touching the artifacts, one remarking, “The visuals were specifically astounding and will never leave my mind—like the wristbands to measure malnutrition on children.”
As reticent as the students had been to speak up during the tour, I was gratified to see that when they were given an opportunity to do something individually, they readily wrote personal notes to be shared with refugees and the camp workers. What happens next is up to them, up to us. Experiences like the one we had in the Forced From Home exhibit help to concretize the more abstract concepts we encounter in our learning and discussions, and, I hope, leave a lasting impression in our students that inspire them to become advocates, activists, and champions in a global community. One student summed it up this way: “I’m not going to forget the number 65 million.”