Now Playing

Doctors Without Borders Brings the Refugee Experience to Oakland

In a visceral way.

Visitors take in 360-degree video footage of displaced people trying to find safety as part of the Forced from Home exhibition.


You're sitting in an overcrowded, underinflated rubber raft, lost at sea. Despite having hardly any possessions with you, you’ve got to pare down even further. So which do you keep: your prescription eyeglasses, your cell phone, or your day’s supply of water?

Those are the sorts of wrenching decisions that organizers of a new traveling exhibition aiming to humanize the current refugee crisis want us to contemplate. The event, Forced from Home, is being staged by Doctors Without Borders at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater this month, having already made stops in New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

The 10,000-square-foot exhibition includes a 30-foot-wide geodesic dome displaying 360-degree videos of displaced people, as well as stations where visitors strap on virtual reality headsets to watch footage of refugees in Iraq, South Sudan, and Greece. With veteran aid workers as their guides, visitors can crawl into the residential tents used in sprawling refugee settlements like Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (now home to more than 350,000 Syrians) and see everyday items like the jerry cans distributed to refugees for their daily two gallons of water. (The average American uses 100 gallons a day.) There are also displays of battered rubber dinghies holding wobbly fuel canisters, and examples of the fake life jackets often sold to unsuspecting migrants.

While the Syrian refugee crisis has faded from headlines in recent months, war and persecution there and elsewhere have driven more people from their homes (65.6 million people displaced worldwide—nearly the combined populations of Texas and California) than at any time since the United Nations’ Refugee Agency began keeping records.

Each year, Doctors Without Borders deploys some 3,000 field-workers across more than 60 countries. Among them is Mark Leirer, who will be leading tours through the Oakland exhibition. A San Jose–based nurse, Leirer has worked in Afghanistan and the Central African Republic and recently returned from patrolling international waters off the Libyan coast. Simply reading about or seeing photos of refugees’ hardships, he says, “[You don’t] have the photographer sitting with you and explaining the realities of the image.” Forced from Home, he says, makes these stories more tangible and personal.

During a one-hour tour, visitors are given a fictional backstory and identity card. Then they have to choose what items they’d bring if they suddenly had to flee: Medicine? Passport? Cash?

Along the way, guides force visitors to give up more of their belongings. “They’re running for their lives because someone is after them,” Leirer says. “People steal from you, people extort you along the way.” Leirer says he’s treated people for medical and psychological trauma who have survived precisely such scenarios.

Of all the objects in the exhibition, though, Leirer says it’s the inflatable boat that, even when filled for just a few minutes, is the most powerful. He can recall the first time he saw such a boat at sea. “It’s basically a small rubber pontoon boat that you normally would use on a lake to fish…and there are 150 people on it.” Oct. 30–Nov. 5


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Follow us on Twitter at @sanfranmag