An interactive exhibit by Doctors Without Borders immerses visitors in the many challenges that refugees encounter.
Walk in the shoes of a refugee
01:13 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

New interactive exhibit presents visitors with challenges refugees and migrants face

Visitors pick mock goods, only to give them up throughout the exhibit to pay or barter for goods

The exhibit is currently in Boston, traveling next to Pittsburgh

Washington CNN  — 

If you had 30 seconds to gather a few essentials before being forced to flee your homeland, what would you take? A passport? A cell phone? Water? Or cash, medicine and baby formula?

It’s the kind of decision Doctors Without Borders is bringing to life in a new traveling exhibition “Forced From Home.” Tour guides have visitors make tough decisions at each stage of the interactive exhibit, simulating the challenges refugees and migrants face as they flee their homes.

“It was really heartbreaking,” said visitor Caitrin Keiper. “As I went through, I have a baby boy, and I was just imagining being one of these mothers who has a baby or perhaps more than one child, and trying to care for them for this whole process.”

“It’s an opportunity to see what it’s like at a moment’s notice to find your family, find your belongings, and what it’s going to take to find safety,” says tour guide Mary Jo Frawley, a nurse who has worked with Doctors Without Borders for 17 years.

In the end it seems to matter very little what mock goods visitors chose to take early on in the tour, because they are forced to give up items one by one, paying or bartering for goods and services as they make their way through the packed exhibition.

At one point, people crowd into an underinflated boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea, with women and children told to sit in the middle near a puddle of water and canisters of fuel that can tip over and cause chemical burns. The boat’s maximum capacity is seven people, but smugglers would likely cram more than 100 on board.

More than 300,000 migrants and refugees arrived by sea to Europe this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. About 3,600 who attempted the trip are dead or missing.

Related: ‘These crossings are nothing but fatal,’ the tale of one rescuer and one desperate day at sea

Visitors climb out of the boat only to weave through concertina wire and fences, a claustrophobic enclosure simulating how refugees and migrants are kept out of countries or held in crowded detention camps. Then it’s on to a refugee camp to pick up a daily ration of two gallons of water – just a fraction of the 100 gallons an average American uses in a day. From there it’s on to a medical station, and finally to a few tents where migrants might live for months at a refugee camp.

“If we had to flee our country with my family, with my son, I can’t imagine that. I mean you hear stories of families who lose their children in the journey, and it’d be hard enough traveling by myself, but with a child it’s just unimaginable. Finding food and shelter and all that, I just can’t imagine what that would be like,” said visitor Joseph Long, who walked through the exhibit with his wife, pushing his 17-month-old son in a stroller.

The refugee and migrant crisis affects millions of people around the world; last year saw the highest levels of forced displacement globally recorded since World War II, according to the United Nations. But this exhibit wants to narrow it down to the individual: What woud you take? What would you pay to get on this boat? Could you live on this much water in a day?

“Walking through the experience and seeing what the boat is like and looking at the sanitation that’s available really brings it home in a whole new way,” said Keiper.

“They’re people just like us,” she said.

After spending a week in Washington, D.C., the exhibit is now in Boston and then travels to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.