Daily Press Staff Writer
Last Tuesday about a dozen high school students huddled together in a raft near the Santa Monica Pier.
As the students sat shoulder to shoulder and imagined what it would be like on the choppy waters of the Mediterranean, they learned that many refugees pay hundreds of dollars for life jackets – which are actually made of straw.
The students were touring a free exhibition open to the public called “Forced From Home,” an outdoor reconstruction of refugee settings from around the world in the parking lot off the Pacific Coast Highway.
The replica rubber dinghy gave the students a tangible sense of the plight of thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East who are fleeing violence.
“The whole thing is a process of extortion,” said Mark Leirer, a medical humanitarian aide worker who is guiding tours in the exhibit.
Leirer himself has worked on a Doctors without Borders (also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF) boat monitoring the crisis off the northern coast of Africa.
“It’s the reality of what’s occurring in Libya…once you enter Libya the only way out is on the Mediterranean.”
The Pier is just one stop on a coast-to-coast tour giving Americans a better understanding of life for the 65.6 million people currently displaced worldwide.
In addition to tents, replica boats and real equipment, the experience utilizes virtual reality and 360-degree videos to take participants to Iraq, Lebanon, Mexico, Tanzania and South Sudan.
“We need to bring back some humanity to this conversation about the refugee crisis,” said Jason Cone, executive director for Doctors without Borders.
The exhibit comes to Santa Monica as the United States ends a special refugee program for Central American children.
The program was established in 2014 by the Obama administration amid a flood of children attempting the dangerous journey from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, fleeing violence and other threats.
The Trump administration also announced this week an end to the temporary protected status that allowed some Nicaraguans to live in the U.S.
In a third blow to refugees seeking help here, President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing tight new restrictions on refugees from 11 countries that have been deemed to warrant extra screening.
The administration says the moves are necessary to ensure national security.
While advocacy groups confront Trump’s travel bans in federal courts, Cone says MSF is confronting a misconception by the public on why many refugees leave their homes.
“I think people have a sense that refugees are leaving their homes out of choice and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Cone said.
“Most of the people I’ve met…these are people who waited until the very last minute when their lives are directly threatened to leave home.”
Among the children on school trips, Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer toured the 10,000 square foot exhibit this week, noting that he and his wife donate to MSF every year.
“We believe that those of us who live in the United States, an affluent society where we are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads and access to nutritious food and good medical care and safe and clean water, need to help those throughout the world who are not so fortunate,” Winterer said.
Winterer noted that climate change and extreme weather conditions are predicted to worsen the plight of many refugees. While the exhibit is not meant to be a fundraiser for MSF, it gives aide workers a chance to fulfill part of their mission.
“I have an insight into this movement that other people don’t get to have and part of our responsibility is to share it,” aide worker Leirer said.
The exhibit is in the parking lot adjacent to the Santa Monica Pier at 1550 Pacific Coast Highway, and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today through Nov. 19.
The public is welcome to simply walk up, no tickets required. The exhibit is free.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.