Refugee Camp in the Heart of New York City
As I was riding my bike and
enjoying a weekend break from cars in Prospect Park, I happened
upon A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City. This is a traveling
exhibit from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without
Borders or DWB) that set up camp in New York City during September
October, first in Central Park, then in Prospect Park and finally at
Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, before moving on to the West Coast.
The exhibit is a simulated refugee camp with tours guided by DWB volunteers
and former refugees. DWB is a group of doctors, nurses, and other professional
volunteers that offers assistance to populations in distress as a result
of natural and man-made disasters. Our guide, an attorney who does administrative
work in the field, explained the differences between refugees, people
who flee from their country to another country, and Internally Displaced
Persons (IDPs), people who have been forced to move from their home
town to a different area within their country. She talked about the
political challenges involved in assisting refugees and IDPs while trying
to remain a neutral party dedicated to providing medical services and
humanitarian assistance to people in need, independent from all political,
economic and religious powers.
The guide began the tour by describing how refugees enter a camp with
few possessions, tired, hungry, afraid and possibly sick or injured.
She asked us to try to imagine that we were refugees, uprooted from
our homes and entering the camp for the first time.
Our first stop was in front of a cluster of tents set up as examples
of shelter used in desert, tropical, or cold weather areas. In front
of the tents were the plastic bowls and utensils used to make and eat
food, and homemade twig brooms used to keep the tents clean. DWB tries
to keep family groups together to provide some stability as they transition
into life at the camp, and when resources are tight six people may
to sleep in a tent that is about seven by six feet. As part of its
aid packages to refugee camps, the UN donates tarps that people use
with whatever resources are available (i.e. sticks, wood, tin, etc.)
to construct the tent shelters. The guide described how the tarps become
a valuable commodity after the people leave the camps. She said its
apparent where the UN has had to intervene with humanitarian aid when
you see the colorful UN-stamped tarps being traded and used for various
purposes in a community.
Refugee camps are hastily constructed, temporary citieshousing
thousands of peoplethat can last from months to decades depending
on the situation they are fleeingwar, natural disaster, or persecution.
DWB looks for leaders within the camp to organize the people, help
the distribution of resources and aid, and to govern the camps.
After newly-arrived refugees are provided with shelter, their needs
for water and then food are taken care of. The guide showed us how
is transported in huge plastic bladders and treated with
chemicals to ensure its safety, and then carefully rationed to families
for drinking, cooking and bathing. While Americans use about 100 gallons
of water a day, refugees must get by with five or less. Food is also
carefully rationed and bags of grain and beans, stamped with USA and
the names of other countries, were stacked in the food tent. We got
to try the vacuum-packed power bars that are distributed
when other food supplies are low. They are compact, portable, dry,
(to accommodate religious requirements), biscuit-like bars that are
high in protein. Eating nine bars a day provides all the necessary
They are also suitable for infants when crushed and mixed with water
to make a mash.
To fulfill the sanitary needs of refugees and keep the camps clean
and disease-free, DWB has water and sanitation engineers who construct
and water distribution systems. Pictures showed how the latrines are
constructed and model latrines demonstrated how they work. A huge pit
is dug at least five feet deep. Wooden stalls are built over the top
of the pit and a hole is cut into the floor of each stall for people
to squat overtheres no running water, nothing to sit on,
and no toilet paper. Plugs are used to cover the holes when they are
not in use to keep down the smell and the flies. Pictures drawn by
showing filth and sickness demonstrated what would happen if so many
people living together in a small area failed to use the latrines.
The next section of the exhibit displayed artwork from refugee children
who had been asked to draw what they had experienced and how they would
like things to be. The crayon drawings of graves, tanks, bombs and burned
out buildings were disturbing to say the least. The guide talked about
how mental health is being recognized as an important factor in the
well-being of the people and how DWB works with refugees to set up culturally
appropriate counseling and ways of coping.
In the medical tent, we saw the minimal supplies that doctors and nurses
must work with and our guide described some of the creative ways DWB
has invented to stretch resources and create the most healthful and
efficient conditions possible. Posters on the walls urged women to breast
feed their babies for as long as possible and others promoted the use
of condoms and safe sex to prevent the spread of HIV and other STDs.
Keeping vaccines refrigerated is a major difficulty and tiny refrigerators
with generators and coolers are highly valued.
In the tent where critically malnourished children are cared for and
monitored, our guide showed us how a strip of papercolored green,
yellow and redis used to measure a childs upper arm to
determine their degree of malnourishment. The arm band became disturbingly
as she shrunk it to the red area, about an inch in diameter, indicating
a critically malnourished child.
The last stop in the camp was a quarantine area where separate latrines,
strong chemical disinfectants, and medical tents with special beds and
saline IV bags are set up to care for people if disease breaks out in
the camp. Cholera is the most common sickness in refugee camps and causes
debilitating and often deadly diarrhea and dehydration. This can be
devastating in refugee camps where thousands of people are packed together
in conditions that weaken their immune systems and make them more susceptible
The tour ended in a tent with photographs from refugee camps around
the world and tables with literature about DWB. Our knowledgeable guide,
a veteran volunteer of several refugee camps, answered our questions
throughout the tour, and photographs and posters at each tent further
explained the workings of refugee camps and DWB. I left this sobering
exhibit with a better understanding of refugee camps, a greater awareness
of the plight of 39 million people worldwide, and also an appreciation
of the inspiring work of Doctors Without Borders.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins
Sans Frontières was founded in 1971 by French doctors. It
is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning independent medical relief organization
with sections in 18 countries, and sends over 2,000 volunteers to over
80 countries annually. To find out more, visit www.doctorswithoutborders.org
or call 212-679-6800. For a virtual tour of a refugee camp
with artwork by and interviews and stories of refugees, visit www.dwb.org.