Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City

I had been looking forward to the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) exhibit, titled Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City, for some time. From the website:

“Guided by MSF aid workers, visitors are asked to imagine that they are among the millions of people fleeing violence and persecution in, for example, Somalia, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Sudan.

“The exhibit is made up of materials used by MSF in its emergency medical work around the world, including emergency refugee housing, a food distribution tent, water pump, health clinic, vaccination tent, therapeutic feeding center, and a cholera treatment center.”

I had been to World Vision’s One Life exhibit at West Edmonton Mall last year, and expected it to be somewhat similar, but this exhibit turned out to be better because of its group and interactive nature.

Meeting point at McIntyre Park in Old Strathcona

Our guides Ben and Natalie, like all other exhibit guides were actual MSF workers, so could speak about most of the issues from personal experiences. Ben is a long-time field manager with MSF, with experience in the Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Sri Lanka, among others, while Natalie, a midwife, just returned from a mission in Chad.

Ben and Natalie, both Canadians

The tour started with a primer on the basic difference between a “refugee” and an “internally displaced person” – the latter still residing within the borders of their country. We then progressed through a series of “stations”, starting with examples of refugee camp shelters.

Ben in front of a makeshift “urban” shelter

Plastic sheeting – portable and rainproof

Next, it was onto the food rations allotted to each person, which only included rice, oil, sugar and beans – no meat, vegetables, or fruit. When even these basics aren’t available for distribution, standard “biscuits” infused with some minerals and nutrients are provided instead.

Food tent

Not surprising, the latrines consisted of plastic-walled sheeting with a plastic mould covering a hole dug into the ground. Once the hole filled up, the latrines were moved, with careful consideration of where the water supply was located.

Sample latrine

Next, we were shown a basic sanitation system. It was heavily emphasized that women and children were largely responsible for waiting in the long lines for both water and food. With a 20L jug being difficult for even a grown adult to carry, it was mind-boggling to imagine a young child delegated such a task.

Water sanitation

We were then shown the different medical services provided by MSF – their primary focus. From counselling, physical treatment, vaccinations, and cholera treatment, our guides pressed upon us the fact that only 10% of their staff are international (90% are hired from within the country) and the number of conditions that go untreated because of the necessary triage and lack of resources.

Children’s drawings depicting their experiences

An example of an MSF clinic

A revolutionary blood spot-test for malaria

Single-use vaccination needles

Cholera treatment tent

One tent focused on the issue of malnutrition in children. We were shown packages of nutrient-packed food called “Plumpy Nut” that has proven to be quite effective, but Ben noted that there isn’t enough produced to meet the need.

Ben talks about various means of measuring normal growth in children

Plumpy Nut

In all, the exhibit took about an hour. I was looking for at least a passing glance on the issue of HIV/AIDS, but I’m assuming the all-ages target of the exhibit quashed anything that may not be fit to present to elementary-aged children.

Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City was well worth the time; you have one more day to check it out in Edmonton. My photo set is here.