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Doctors Without Borders:

From a distance, the replica of a refugee camp nestled in the parking lot north of Santa Monica Pier didn’t look very big. The tiny buildings and tents inside a fence looked like something that a casual visitor could walk through quickly. But by the time our docent had taken us on the tour of the “Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City,” we had learned that there is much more to a refugee camp than meets the eye.

Doctors Without Borders (Medicines Sans Frontieres) is an international humanitarian organization that distributes emergency aid to people in areas where their survival is threatened. The organization has been touring California with the refugee camp replica, which arrived in Santa Monica for the weekend of October 31-November 2.

Our guide Joe began by explaining to us the difference between a refugee and an IDP (internally displaced person). The latter are people who are uprooted from their homes within political borders. Because they are still dealing with the forces that drove them from their homes, resources for survival may be more difficult for them to obtain than for refugees who escape to a different country.

We passed through a mocked-up border crossing. Joe told us that the security guard at a typical gate may be only a 12-year-old with a gun. Border security guards inevitably ask for “payment”– jewelry, electronic devices, money, even a family member to be left behind with the guards. Most refugees travel only with what they are able to carry and may not have much to barter.

Inside, we saw a miniature settlement area with a wooden hut and a tent. Shelters in camps are typically made from any materials available. The accessories we saw – metal cooking pots, toys, pillows – might be hard to come by in a real refugee camp. More typical was the crude toy figure made from wire and a bottle cap, and sandals made from old rubber tires – creative use of found materials.

Shelter is a refugee’s first consideration, and the site chosen for a camp is determined first by the safety of its location. Therefore, the next items on the survival list, food and water, may not be found nearby.

We saw a shelter containing sacks of available local food – sugar, salt, beans, and rice. Sometimes, refugees may eventually be able to grow their own food. But more often, they have to forage for food, or wait for help from agencies like Doctors Without Borders. Malnutrition is always a big risk. Agencies distribute RUFs (Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods), which can take the form of a high-energy biscuit or packets of nutrition-packed peanut butter. We sampled the biscuits, which tasted good, but imagine having to eat them every day!

The source for water may be a spring, lake, or well some miles away. Water and firewood must be carried back to the camps, and as this is traditionally a task for women and children, there have been many incidents in war-torn areas of women and children being attacked when they leave the camps. One member of our group asked why men don’t help with these tasks. Our guide could only reply that it’s difficult to change people’s traditional roles.

We also saw an example of a latrine (a wooden hut with a hole in the ground), a medical tent, and an isolation area where refugees were treated for cholera. Although inoculations are available for some diseases, there is no vaccine for cholera, which is caused by unsanitary water. Patients are kept away from other refugees and are constantly hydrated until, hopefully, their bodies fight off the infection.

To learn about these conditions is sobering. Most Americans, who have access to medical care, who live in residences with indoor plumbing, who can get food quickly from markets, have never had to deal with the deprivations of uprooted people. According to our tour guide, some people tell him they feel sad after their tour of the mock camp. “I tell them not to feel sad,” he said, emphasizing that people are remarkably resilient and that at least organizations like Doctors Without Borders are helping people around the world.

To learn more, go to doctorswithoutrborders.org. 

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