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Humanitarian workers demonstrate struggles, dilemmas faced by refugees

SHARE Humanitarian workers demonstrate struggles, dilemmas faced by refugees

SALT LAKE CITY— As Heather Baniulis led students from Fairfield Junior High School through a series of refugee scenarios, she asked at almost every turn what people would be willing to give up to get away from danger.

On Monday, Baniulis and other members of Doctors Without Borders opened up their "Forced From Home" exhibit. The exhibit — containing mock-up refugee tents and portable medical facilities — showcases an approximation of the conditions faced by some 65 million people displaced by wars and political strife in their homelands.

The exhibits, displayed on the Salt Lake City Main Library plaza, are meant to guide visitors through a number of scenarios that people from countries like Afghanistan, Burundi, Honduras, South Sudan and Syria have had to face on their path to safety.

Holding a handful of laminated cards to represent the few items they could take before going on the run, the students were asked to give up comforts and necessities in hopes of sneaking across borders, being smuggled across the Mediterranean on inflatable boats and trading for needed items like water at migrant marketplaces. At certain points, visitors would give up items listed on their laminated cards, such as clothes and even passports, while hoping to keep hold of vital items like food and medicine or a cellphone as a symbol of hope that they may one day reconnect with family.

Going through one part of the exhibit, a class of students was forced to huddle onto an inflatable boat, only to learn that a gas leak on the high seas would start to flood the boat, creating a chemical reaction with the water that would cause skin burns over time. For the cost of another precious item, Baniulis offered up cheap-made life jackets, a pair of foam strips stitched into a thin fabric sleeve that would almost certainly become waterlogged and sink if it did get wet.

As the students finally reached help at the aid stations set up by Doctors Without Borders, they stopped having to give away their items.

"Because we're at a (Doctors Without Borders) clinic, you don't have to give up an item, because none of the patients are ever charged for the services they are given," Baniulis said.

Baniulis then went on to explain the role that medical staff play in treating those people who are displaced, helping them to overcome dehydration, injuries and health risks from exposure, disease and malnourishment.

Baniulis, who has worked as a nurse for Doctors Without Borders for the past three years, shared some of her own experiences from her various humanitarian missions, such as one in South Sudan treating a 10-year-old girl who was suffering from cholera.

"I really thought she might not make it," Baniulis said, describing the girl's state of dehydration which had been so bad that her eyes had become sunken in, causing them to stay open when she slept.

Despite worrisome outlooks, Doctors Without Borders kept up her treatment and after a couple of days rehydrating the girl, the worst symptoms of her cholera cleared and she was able to return to her family.

"The most rewarding thing is seeing people get better that you did not expect to get better and knowing that maybe you had a very small part to play in that," Baniulis said.

As visitors made it to the end of their tour, they were able to walk through some of the tents commonly used in refugee camps. Baniulis made note of the conditions faced even as refugees make it to generally safe areas. Some refugees could spend months, if not years, living inside of those tents. Other refugees, like the ones in Kenya's Dadaab camp, have been living there for more than 25 years.

"There's people who have been born in this camp, grown up and have had children of their own, and they have never known anything except for this camp," Baniulis said.

At the end of the exhibit, students and other visitors were invited to write letters to aid workers and to watch virtual reality videos of various refugee camps around the world.

Rachel Milkovich, a Doctors Without Borders media coordinator, said the exhibit has provided an important opportunity for the organization to share its global mission, last year touring through five cities in the eastern United States and now touring six more this year.

Milkovich said it's important for "aid workers to share their stories and speak openly about what they and their patients have experienced first hand."

The "Forced From Home" will stay in Salt Lake City until Sept. 24 before moving on to Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; and Santa Monica, California.

The exhibit is free to the public and takes about an hour to go through. The content of the exhibit is recommended for adults and children ages 12 and older.