It was a chilly day 3 months ago. I had a warm coat, but the wind occasionally kicked up, making me wish I had one more layer on. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but I was ushered into a fenced off area and told, “You have 30 seconds to decide what you’re taking. You can pick 5 things. GO!” The small group of us searched through our “possessions”. What would travel well? What was a necessity? What had value that I could sell and also conceal? Cell phone? Medication? Passports? Money? Water? Food? Blankets? Coats? I snatched up things with as much discernment that 30 seconds provided.
It was time to flee my home and leave behind everything I wasn’t already holding. A small group of us hiked to the boat that we hoped with usher us away from danger. We’d have to pay for our passage in this crude powerboat. There goes my money. We had gas and questionable life jackets, but no pilot. Our guide just pointed across the vast emptiness. How long would we be on the water? Would my coat keep warm from the gust of wind across the open sea? What about once it got wet? The Bible is right. “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” (Matt 24:19) We don’t even need to wait that long to have those thoughts. I am grateful our entire party consisted of adults. How much harder it would be with children. I could not imagine what kind of fear is needed to motivate a parent to bring a child on such a dangerous journey. Strike that. Yes, I do. Sometimes the unknown is better than the known.
When our boat finally reached the other side safely, there were grateful tears. We’d all heard the tales of boats who were not so fortunate. Between the elements, the patrol boats sent to turn travelers back, and the drowning, the numbers of those making it to the other side were dwindling. Where we landed was still on our side of the national borderline. Decisions needed to be made. We weren’t safe yet, but we were still citizens. Once we crossed the line, our status would officially change from internally displaced persons to refugees. On the one side we still had some legal protection, if one could trust the government to ensure those rights. But once we stepped across the line, all legal protection evaporated. We were at the mercy of hostile host nations, UN laws (if they could be enforced), and NGOs. We crossed.
The first camp we arrived at wasn’t all that bad. I mean, it wasn’t great, but there was food and water. There was some shelter, and there was rest. We’d been traveling for so long that our supplies from home had long been depleted. Here there was a market, though the prices were inflated, and we had little to bargain with. I traded away some more of my scanty possessions. We could even charge our phones, even though the chances of using them now that we crossed the boarder were minimal. It’s been a long time since we’d heard from family. The phone gave me some hope. At least it held their numbers.
It wouldn’t be long before the novelty of rest wore off. The aid workers were doing their best to help, but sanitation was remedial and the tents were so close to each other. We were crowded into shelters with strangers, packed like sardines, sleeping on mats, sharing a single pot to cook our allotted food. We prayed for dry weather to air our things out. I knew that I would likely be moved to a new camp. I wasn’t sure where that would be, but I felt the need to keep moving.
The group that I traveled with approached a more permanent camp (oxymoron, I know) with some joy. This was an MSF camp and it had doctors. Praise God! How long had it been since my medication had run out. Maybe I could get some help? There was some fear though. The camp had seen cholera. Would there be an outbreak? Would we be safe? They were providing special food for those who were malnourished and vaccines and medicine to those who needed them. It was a mix of fear and hope. I think one of the moments of real hope I found was when they told me their were people we could talk to, mental health counselors who might help us process all that we had been through from the dangers in our homeland to the struggle on our journey that had led us this far.
This far. Where were we now? Was this home? How long would we be here? Would this ever become home? How long before it would be safe to go home again? Would it ever be safe? Would this tent commune be safe? Would there be jobs or school? How many of us would never make the return trip? Should I apply for relocation? Would that be giving up on my dreams of going home again? Would I make it through the years of living this way to make it through the process? Where would I go? Would I be able to speak the language? Would the people welcome me? I have so many questions, worries, fears.
And then it was done. 60 minutes later, our group was ushered towards the exit. Our tour of “Forced From Home” was over. I got to go home to my warm house. My friend, Cat, and I walked back across Independence Plaza with Independence Hall and the Philly skyline in the background. Freedom. Safety. These are things we so often take for granted. No longer.
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Check the Forced From Home website to watch videos and learn more. Check back for new 2017 dates to experience this exhibit yourself. You won’t regret it.