Santa Monica Residents Visit with Doctors Without Borders for Free Refugee Experience Tour

The usually happy and warm environment of the Santa Monica Pier harbored somber and concerned faces from its residents, as the Doctors Without Borders group educated the public on the work they have been doing overseas. That work is far away from the calm California shores, in places like Afghanistan, South Sudan and Syria, where many of the over 65 million people worldwide are displaced from their homes.

The humanitarian medical group, known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) worldwide, visited Santa Monica last week, from Nov. 13-19, to wrap up its tour of the United States spreading awareness about the global displacement crisis through their interactive 'Forced from Home' exhibition.

MSF nurse John Fiddler is a tour leader for the event, and has been working in the field as an aid worker since 2005. Fiddler said the MSF tries to give a taste of what it's like to be forced from your home to Americans who may not realize these issues facing those in other parts of the world.

"We use five countries as examples: Honduras, Burundi, Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Very different experiences, but they all have this one thing in common that people are being forced out of their homes, whether it's across borders or not," Fiddler said.

The tour starts off with a 360-degree video showing some of the countries and environments the MSF is working in, and then takes participants through a series of stations designed to replicate the situations these displaced people, most of whom are women and children, go through.

From the dangerous journey of leaving home through train or by sea, and the long process that comes with entering a new country, it's often a brutal experience for those who are displaced, and the MSF wanted to demonstrate that to visitors.

Decisions like choosing between personal items and survival supplies were put upon those in the tour. Participants start with five items to choose to bring on their journey but finish with only one, similar to how a refugee may be forced to part with their belongings.

Fiddler also talked about the medical services MSF provides to all parties, not just one in any conflict, and how the group works not just to help those injured or sick, but to prevent any diseases like cholera and malaria from contaminating or spreading to other people.

While the MSF did take donations at the event, raising awareness was the greater purpose, and Fiddler said those who are moved by the exhibition can contribute in other ways besides money, like through work at local refugee centers.

"We're not here to raise money, we're here to just witness and to show you," Fiddler said. "We have a lot of school groups, hopefully the young kids who come will take something away from this as well."

San Pedro high school was among those groups, and junior Tayvion Thomas said he appreciated the chance to see the exhibit.

"I think the most important thing is don't take anything for granted. Most people in the U.S. complain about the stuff they don't have, but as I went through each station, it was like how they had to choose what they could take with them and what they can't," said Thomas.

Fellow student Maddie Popovich was also moved to see the challenges refugees go through, and said she wants to see what organizations she can help through.

"Seeing what people had to go through was kinda difficult, considering that we live in California and we have all these luxuries," Popovich said. "And to see the struggles of other people is really different and eye-opening."