Doctors Without Borders Teaches US About Borders

Courthouse News photos of Doctors Without Borders’ traveling exhibit in San Antonio by Daniel Conrad.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — “Seeking safety is not a crime.” Aid workers and staff members of Doctors Without Borders repeat these words during “Forced From Home,” an interactive tour educating Americans about the pressures that have made more than 68.5 million people asylum-seekers, migrants or refugees worldwide.

A final week of free guided presentations in San Antonio will conclude the program after three years of operation, weeks before caravans of Central Americans may reach the U.S.-Mexico border, to be met by 7,000 U.S. troops.

The timing of the end of the show is entirely coincidental, said Doctors Without Borders communication officer Courtney Ridgway.

“We planned this long before we knew about the migrant caravan,” said Ridgway, who called Doctors Without Borders “a pretty unique NGO.” The group formed when French doctors and journalists wanted to help victims of Nigeria’s Biafran War in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but had to split from the Red Cross to do so.

“We do feel like it’s important to speak out when we need to. We’ve seen immigration policy in the U.S. become so politicized, and really it’s not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue,” Ridgway said.

The program hones in on humanitarian issues at stake in displacement and emigration. Groups of participants are shown a 360-degree video of doctors, logisticians and other volunteers as they tend to those who are ill, malnourished, pregnant or otherwise in need of medical attention but not cared for by their home country.

Scenes at camps in Greece, Lebanon, Mexico, South Sudan and Tanzania are paired with testimony about Doctors Without Borders’ mission and the needs of internally displaced people, immigrants and refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people.

“People don’t leave home lightly,” Ridgway said. “Even with natural disasters we’ve seen people wanting to stay put, despite the danger that it poses to them. What we’re trying to teach Americans is that most of the people coming here are not coming for economic opportunity, necessarily; the majority are coming because they are fleeing extreme violence.”

At one station, the group crowds into the sort of boats that are loaded by smugglers and sent off to drift in the Mediterranean Sea in hope of being rescued or reaching a friendlier nation’s shores. At another, participants are separated by a fence: refugees and internally displaced folks on the inside, asylum-seekers and migrants on the outside.

Tour guides explain the forces that push people from their homes — economic depression, ethnic or religious persecution, famine, political repression, war — and show how these reinforce and amplify one another. Models of tents from various nations’ refugee camps are staged near replicas of medical treatment centers.

Tour guide Alice Gautreau is a French midwife who joined the organization in 2016, worked in the Congo for more than a year and was stationed on a ship on the Mediterranean for four months, tending to asylum-seekers lifted from boats.

“The general [audience] response is that it’s really a good experience to see this, and it’s very practical. We’re not talking numbers or statistics,” Gautreau said. “We’re giving first-hand stories that people can relate to.”

The education is not a one-way street. Ridgway and others who work on the program have learned from participants as well, for example, from refugees in Minneapolis.

“We had the opportunity to invite a lot of … Somali migrants, and in a lot of cases they were able to jump in and offer their own stories,” Ridgway said. “It’s been an interesting experience for our aid workers because many of them are not American,” and have had their preconceptions of the United States challenged as a result of the touring program, which visited Chicago, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta before coming to Texas.

“It is my first time here [in the U.S.], but I’ve done this a lot in the U.K. When I come back from my mission I talk to people,” Gautreau said. “The bearing witness part is, to me, one of the most important ones. … As the privileged woman that I am, my voice can carry a message that all of these people cannot necessarily put out there.”

The exhibit offers a starkly different message than is coming from Washington. The Department of Homeland Security said in a Nov. 1 statement that it expects the Central American caravan to arrive in the first two weeks of November; “large groups — who have already showed a propensity to using violence to achieve its [sic] objective — presents a unique safety threat to our nation,” according to the DHS statement, called “Caravan: Myth vs. Fact.”

(Omitted from “Myth vs. Fact” is that for the lead caravan to arrive at the U.S. border by mid-November, the people, traveling on foot, would have to cover more than 65 miles a day.)

Doctors Without Borders has publicly criticized aspects of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, including family separation and alterations of grounds for asylum.

“Staying completely apolitical, we can see from the facts that these people are seeking safety,” Gautreau said. “They are fleeing something that is unhealthy, that puts their lives in danger. Having worked with these people firsthand on the boat, for instance, I see the resilience that they show, the craftiness that they have, their intelligence.”

Gautreau finds asylum-seekers’ attitudes and perseverance inspiring.

“Go out and talk to them, and you’ll see they are absolutely amazing people. I think we should be super proud that they consider our countries as a safe place. We should make sure that they actually are safe places. I’m always honored if someone comes into my home. I want to make sure they feel safe and that they feel welcome. We should do the same for our big home, our country.”

Ridgway added: “There’s a human behind each of these headlines.”

Doctors Without Borders is offering guided tours and virtual-reality documentary viewings outside the Bexar County Courthouse through Sunday, Nov. 11. Ridgway estimates that by the end of the week, 17,500 Americans will have experienced “Forced From Home” nationwide. A smaller, pop-up exhibit will continue to travel after the final exhibition.

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