Doctors Without Borders Brings Eye-Opening Exhibit to LA

Doctors Without Borders Brings Eye-Opening Exhibit to LA

Dr. Tomoko Kurokawa poses with a 6-year-old tuberculosis patient at a hospital in Liberia where she spent seven months on a field mission for Doctors Without Borders. (Photo courtesy of Kurokawa)

Experience the life of a refugee in a powerful exhibit and get involved with humanitarian work

The Daily Bruin

By Sophie Rane, Bruin contributor

THERE ARE 42 million people in the world who have been displaced by war and violence, according to the Web site for "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City," an interactive exhibit organized by international aid organization Doctors Without Borders.

The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, is designed to give visitors a picture of life in a refugee camp.

It has been touring several major California cities this year and will open at the Santa Monica Pier this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Dr. Tomoko Kurokawa, who earned a medical degree from UCLA in 1999, spent seven months working for Doctors Without Borders in a Liberian hospital in 2006 and now leads tours for the exhibit.

When people arrive at refugee camps, Kurokawa said, they have witnessed murder, rape, violence and kidnapping, and they have anxieties and uncertainties. They do not know what their lives will be like in the camps, and they have no way of knowing when, if ever, they will return home.

"I lived in a very simple house," Kurokawa said. "We didn't have running water either."

Kurokawa said that she chose to lead tours of the camp in order to share this level of personal experience.

She first became interested in humanitarian work as a graduate student when rotations through local free clinics gave her an idea of what it would be like to help the underprivileged.

In 2006, Kurokawa's interest in humanitarian work inspired her to spend seven months working for a Doctors Without Borders hospital near the border of Sierra Leone.

She was the only medical aid worker at the hospital, and treated a wide range of medical issues from tuberculosis to malnourishment.

She also established the first HIV treatment center at the hospital, located in a village where the virus was prevalent.

"There is something to be said for directly helping people," she said, "but for me, the most important thing was teaching and training local staff."

Kurokawa trained the hospital's staff in many vital medical procedures, including testing patients for HIV and the administration of retoviral AIDS medication. Because of Dr. Kurokawa's instruction, the hospital is now run entirely by local medical staff.

At A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City, visitors are led on tours by volunteers who, like Kurokawa, have completed field work for Doctors Without Borders. The exhibit is built with the materials and equipment of a functioning refugee camp.

In an example of refugee housing, visitors see how eight to 10 people live together in a single tent.

They are shown a typical daily food ration in a food distribution center, and in the malnutrition center, guests can watch how medical staff determine severity and proper treatment.

Visitors also see how a typical latrine is built in a refugee camp, and learn how the location of latrines must be carefully planned to avoid contamination of water sources.

They watch how aid workers fight to treat and prevent disease within the camps in the health clinic and vaccination center.

At all of these stations, aid workers help visitors envision what life would be like as someone displaced by violence.

While the display itself is a vital tour for participants to visualize life in a refugee camp, Kurokawa said visitors are consistently most interested in the personal experiences of the exhibit guides.

It is difficult for many people to understand the conditions in a refugee camp, Kurokawa said.

The exhibit tour guides have not only worked in these conditions, but have also lived in them, she added.

Dr. Kurokawa said the exhibit is a great jumping-off point for anyone interested in humanitarian work and stressed that these opportunities are not limited to those in the medical field.

"You don't have to be a doctor," said Chris Sauer, a fire chief in Lake Tahoe who has participated in five field missions as a non-medical professional since 1990 and now guides tours at the exhibit. He encouraged anyone interested in working for Doctors Without Borders to attend the display.

"Maybe this can inspire them to take action and get involved right away," Dr. Kurokawa agreed.

Both Kurokawa and Sauer said that the exhibit is invaluable to medical students and those interested in humanitarian work, but they also added that the display is designed as a learning opportunity that anyone can greatly benefit from. Violence and humanitarian crises that happen far away are not always accessible to the public.

"You don't always hear about it on Yahoo," said Sauer, who continued on to say that the exhibit is "a great educational experience to find out what's happening all over the world."

Both Kurokawa and Sauer said that it is impossible to convey the difficulties faced by people displaced by war.

Kurokawa said, "The exhibit gives a glimpse of a day in the life, but this could be every day in the life of some of these people."

Despite this, both Kurokawa and Sauer said that the camp is a unique and powerful experience that will help visitors to understand the difficulties faced by the inhabitants of refugee camps around the world.

Published: Friday, October 31, 2008