A downtown Minneapolis park will soon be overtaken by an exhibition that provides a virtual reality experience of refugee camps around the world. “Forced from Home” includes interactive simulations, virtual reality films, and a 360-degree video dome, all designed to raise awareness about the experience of refugees around the world. There are more than 68.5 million refugees and displaced people in the world today — greater than the populations of England or France.
The exhibition is free and designed for walk-ins. It opens Sunday, Sept. 9, at 10 a.m. and runs through Sunday, Sept. 16, at The Commons, near the US Bank Stadium. The 10,000 square-foot installation is presented by Doctors Without Borders, an international organization that provides medical aid to areas of highest need, including refugee camps and areas of conflict worldwide. Minneapolis is the first city to host the “Forced From Home” exhibition in this year’s five-city tour.
“It’s extremely dangerous to be a refugee. You are at the mercy of elements and governments that don’t want you,” said Dr. Sarah Giles, a Canadian physician whose most recent field assignment with Doctors Without Borders was aboard a search-and-rescue boat that provided medical aid to migrants off the coast of Libya. “Most people desperately want to be home,” she added. “Leaving home is not something that people do on a whim. It takes incredible courage to leave everything behind.”
Dr. Giles is one of the aid workers who will guide visitors through the interactive exhibit, answering questions and providing insight from their own experience in the field.
“We can tell people what it’s really like,” Dr. Giles said, adding that by leading the tours she can contribute to the work of Doctors Without Borders “without having to get some bad memories in the process.” Since 2014, Giles has also worked stints in South Sudan, Pakistan, and Myanmar among the Rohingya people, in situations that are “psychologically very difficult.”
Dr. Giles says she is often asked why she can’t be sent somewhere nice and safe for a change. Her response: “Almost by definition, if we are there, governments have failed people, and others don’t feel safe there — often worse-case scenarios for people. What we do is level the playing field by giving people health care when there is nowhere else to turn — people who’ve carried their kids for eight days to come and see you.”
The exhibit is “not all terribly depressing,” Giles is quick to add. The exhibit invites visitors to engage with individual stories and materials from medical missions. Visitors see “a very human aspect” of refugees’ lives, Dr. Giles says. Each step of the way is designed to be interactive. The exhibition begins with a stop in the 30-foot video dome, which offers 360-degree video explaining contexts and issues that cause people to flee their homes. Near the end of the tour, virtual reality films allow visitors to immerse themselves in refugee camps and other communities around the world. Stops in between explore some of the difficulties a person confronts while fleeing home, including basic needs, medical needs, and legal status.
Tours last an hour, and walk-ins are welcome. Middle- and high-school groups as well as college groups are welcome, as are local organizations. The exhibit’s website offers teacher resources for follow-up classroom discussion. Groups larger than 10 are asked to make reservations 48 hours in advance by filling out a brief form here. Any group tour-related questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tours runs rain or shine.
While there is no graphic material on display, the exhibition is recommended for ages 12 and older because of the subject matter. Parents should determine whether their children should attend. More than half of the world’s refugee population are children, according to the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.
As she prepares to lead her first Minneapolis tour, Dr. Giles says she hopes visitors to the exhibit leave knowing that people become refugees not through choice. By definition, a refugee is a person who has left his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group.
“It’s a human right and perfectly legal to seek asylum in safe countries,” she said. “Unfortunately all of us are at risk of becoming refugees. I spoke to a man from Syria who had a 36-inch TV at home and was going to university, before the fighting broke out. He told me, ‘I never thought this could happen to my country.’ ”
After its stint in Minneapolis the exhibit will travel to Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta, and San Antonio. The last time a Doctors Without Borders exhibition came to Minneapolis was September 2007, when the organization set up a mock refugee camp in Loring Park.
The exhibition’s hours are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends at The Commons, 430 Portland Ave. near US Bank Stadium. You can watch a trailer video for the Forced From Home Exhibition here.