Illustrating plight of war-torn refugees

Doctors Without Borders' exhibit "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City" illustrates the plight of war refugees, such as that of these women in Sudan.

International aid group, Doctors Without Borders, aims to enlighten others with its “A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City” exhibit.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

On a sunny day on Santa Monica Beach, with children’s laughter echoing from the pier carousel and the scent of grilled sausages wafting in the air, it’s hard to imagine the life of a war refugee, one of millions from throughout the world displaced and uprooted by armed conflict in a country seemingly indifferent to the desperate needs of its own people.

But Doctors Without Borders, the international humanitarian organization that provides medical and emergency aid programs in 60 countries, aims to illustrate that plight with its exhibit “A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City” next week.

From this Thursday through Sunday in Santa Monica, visitors will have the opportunity to tour an 8,000-square-foot recreation of a typical refugee camp constructed by Doctors Without Borders in war and disaster-ravaged countries, that have already served more than 42 million people displaced by war and natural disasters-26 million of them seeking safety within their own country’s borders.

Visitors to the free, outdoor exhibit will be guided by DWB aid workers, who have labored in countries like Somalia and Sudan, through a typical camp that includes a cholera treatment center, a health clinic, emergency housing, and nutrition and vaccination tents. Guests will learn how refugees confront the challenges that threaten their survival, including building a shelter, fighting disease and finding food and clean water.

“A middle school kid can grab a jug of clean water that serves a whole family for a day and see what it’s like to haul something like that a few miles,” Dr. Matthew Spitzer, U.S. director of DWB, said. “Instead of just seeing photos of a camp, it’s a chance to climb into a refugee’s shoes and see just what they face on a daily basis.”

Since the tour first opened in France in 1995, upwards of a million people in 16 countries have visited “A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City.” More than a few were horrified to realize that measuring their upper arms assesses children at risk of starvation. Those suffering the worst malnutrition have circumferences of a mere 110 millimeters-about two inches.

“It’s a great educational tool,” Spitzer said. “We talk about nutritional issues in these countries and how we can best meet the needs of different cultures with different tastes. Right now, we are working with an RUF (ready-to-use therapeutic food) that is peanut based. We need better quality nutrients for infants or their brains will be stunted.”

The sheer numbers of people displaced by war and natural disaster are staggering: 10 million people alone have fled to other countries seeking asylum, such as those from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. Sudan and Columbia are home to 10 million internally displaced persons who usually have fewer rights than cross-border refugees who are recognized by the United Nations and, therefore, entitled to international help.

Amy Segal is a former location and production manager for the film industry who now volunteers as a logistician for DWB. After working on such films as “Golden Eye” and the “Indiana Jones” series on location in Russia and Malaysia, she realized she “needed to do more” in her life.

“I was really struck by how Doctors Without Borders works and, since I’ve managed large location crews, I fit right in,” she said.

A logistician is the technical support that lies behind the medical care brought to difficult environments, Segal explained. She arranges the shipping of pharmaceuticals and equipment, provides the generators camps need for energy, maintains vehicles and helps set up living facilities for staff and refugees.

“Setting up an HIV treatment center in Uganda and working with the population there was quite a transformative experience,” Segal said. “You really felt like you made a difference.”

More challenging was her experience in what the UN has categorized as the poorest nation on earth – Sierra Leone – during 2003-04, when thousands of refugees from Liberia were crossing borders to escape the civil war there.

“Not only did we provide primary health care but we had to educate the refugees as to the importance of taking responsibility for their own health,” Segal said. “But there are cultural complications. Seventy-nine percent of the people we worked with were illiterate, so explaining that there are tiny bugs in untreated water that can kill you is just too abstract.”

Segal said the exhibit has many materials taken right from refugee camps that illustrate conditions on the ground.

“All kids need toys and people come up with creative solutions when resources are limited,” she said. “We have a toy jeep made out of a cockroach spray can, with the lid cut up for wheels. You can see how people make their own stoves or shelters out of plastic sheeting we gave them. Basically you see how people seek to restore their own humanity.”

Next Saturday, Doctors Without Borders will be honoring one of their most important fund raising arms on the West Coast, Malibu Global Awareness, which has raised and donated more than $500,000 to DWB during the past five years.

“Doctors Without Borders functions purely on donations and takes no money from government agencies,” Dr. Annie Thiel, Malibu resident and director of Malibu Global Awareness, said. “I am happy to see they are bringing such conscious awareness of what’s going on in the field with this exhibit. You can really see what it’s like to live at these camps.”

“A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City” will be open in the parking lot just north of the Santa Monica Pier from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Oct. 31- Nov. 2.