refugee camp 101

posted my missmsian

“Imagine you’ve just been told a rebel group has invaded Toronto. They’ve taken over your home on Eglinton and you’re out here hearing the news. They’re heading south. You have three minutes to get ready to escape. What are you going to bring?”

That’s how a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctor started our guided tour of MSF’s refugee camp exhibit in Christie Pits Park on May 30.

The exhibit was part of an MSF awareness effort worldwide. Multiple cities have played host to the touring camp creation–four in Canada, including Toronto last week. The exhibit wraps up its Canadian tour in Waterloo today.

For a weekend, Christie Pits was transformed into a refugee camp, complete with model shelters, latrines and “checkpoints” staffed by actor-volunteers.

Different types of shelter at refugee camps

I’ve never attended a natural disaster or conflict zone firsthand so I’m not qualified to comment on what MSF does there, but, from what I’ve read, the volunteers provide important medical care in the areas they serve.

However, although the exhibit was well intentioned, I’m left wondering how effective it is to provide groups of privileged Westerners with a cleaned-up, hour-long experience of camp life.

A few in my tour group were snapping photos right and left, exclaiming over how cute the homemade soccer balls were or how tasty the rice rations looked. Errrr … the boat left and you missed it.

The inside of a (model) refugee shelter

That’s not to say I was much better than them. I took the photos that accompany this post–on my BlackBerry, no less. It was a hot day and some in the group were sipping Starbucks as we toured.

At one point, when the tour guide was talking about land mines, I commented that the mines used in non-Western countries are largely supplied by Western companies. She caught on right away, answering that countries like the U.S. are effectively supplying rebel groups with weaponry to harm civilians.

“Canada, too, probably,” I said.

“No, no, I’m sure Canada has signed a UN treaty against that,” a sweet but deluded old white lady interjected.

Yes, ma’am, if you’re looking at the world through Rosedale-covered glasses.

Although it was implicit throughout the tour that Western countries play a large role in cultivating and/or sustaining conflicts in non-Western areas, it was frustrating not to hear that aspect brought out more.

I learned new things about medical advances being used in natural disaster zones and a brief overview of the major groups in conflict in the Congo (our guide spent eight months there). But I left frustrated by my complicity towards the West’s role in non-Western conflicts and the realization that there is so little I can do about it. There were moments where Africa and Asia were portrayed as perpetual conflict zones in need of Western rescue.

What do you think of awareness events aimed at educating Westerners (that includes non-white people raised in the West!) about non-Western situations?

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