What If I Were Fleeing Civil Strife in Burundi?

Most of us here have only the vaguest idea what it would be like to flee civil strife, or war, or ethnic cleansing or other calamity that can drive people from their homes in fear of their lives, put them on a path of extreme danger and difficulty, and ultimately, perhaps, land them in a refugee camp.

Forced From Home, a simulation developed by staff of Medecins Sans Frontieres, attempts to educate us on what that experience is like.

We have a lot of suffering people in the world. Some camps have been home to the same refugees for as long as 20 years, with basic needs met under U.N. auspices but little else, and little hope of landing anywhere that might offer a new start in life.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors without Borders, was founded in France in 1971, and has been meeting critical medical needs for millions of people around the globe ever since.  In addition to refugees, MSF also serves internally displaced persons, people who are forced to flee their homes but stay within their own borders, and stateless persons like the Rohingya who are being chased out of Myanmar. The latter populations share none of the U.N. protections extended to refugees.

On Saturday, friend Louise and I went to the MSF simulation.  On arriving, each of us was given a card identifying where we were from and what status we had: mine read “Burundi, refugee”. We had 30 seconds to grab five things to take with us when we ran from our “home” — cell phone, medicine, water, a blanket, shoes, baby formula, food, money, extra clothing, a motorbike, a few other options. Then we began our journey. At each stop, we had to give up one of the five things, as do refugees to smugglers, criminals, people who sell wildly expensive passage on rickety, unsafe boats, unscrupulous vendors and corrupt government officials.

The experience was powerful, and I learned a lot — even though my friend Jane worked for MSF for many years and I was familiar with certain aspects of the work through her.

The U.S. takes in far fewer refugees per our population than most European countries — even before Trump’s America first nonsense. Middle Eastern countries surrounding or near the war torn countries take in the most — Turkey has accepted almost 3M people fleeing from places like Syria.

In my simulated flight from civil war in Burundi, I would have been trying to reach Tanzania over land — and I imagine someone of my age would have died on the way. I imaging that the oldest and the youngest die, which is a sobering thought.

If you have a chance to visit a Forced From Home exhibit — MSF apparently does them in many cities — go. MSF’s goal is not only to educate but to move people to action. Before you do anything, you’ll simply feel lucky and blessed to be alive.

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