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November/December 2000
A Refugee Camp in the Heart of New York City

By Samantha Knowlden



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 and 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 have 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 along 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 it’s 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 cities—housing thousands of people—that can last from months to decades depending on the situation they are fleeing—war, natural disaster, or persecution. DWB looks for leaders within the camp to organize the people, help with 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 water 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, vegetarian (to accommodate religious requirements), biscuit-like bars that are high in protein. Eating nine bars a day provides all the necessary nutrients. 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 latrines 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 over—there’s 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 children 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 paper—colored green, yellow and red—is used to measure a child’s upper arm to determine their degree of malnourishment. The arm band became disturbingly small 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 to disease.

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 or call 212-679-6800. For a “virtual tour” of a refugee camp with artwork by and interviews and stories of refugees, visit


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