What is it like to live as a refugee? The images coming from Texas give us some idea, but while Hurricane Harvey was a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe, there are ongoing crises around the globe. And while we may register the plight of refugees in faraway places like Syria and Somalia, most of us will never really know the human side of living on the run, in constant danger, with little more than the clothes on your back.
Precious few people here ever answer the call to step into that world and live it firsthand.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières medical team leader Mark Leirer is one of the rare exceptions. For Leirer, whose newest assignment is as a tour-guide team leader for MSF’s traveling Forced From Home mock refugee camp — a 10,000-square-foot exhibit that arrives in Boulder on Monday, September 4, for a weeklong stay on the Pearl Street Mall — such humanitarian objectives unfolded in stages, over time.
“In college, I was originally an undergrad in global studies, which was completely unrelated to doing medical work," he says. "Afterward, I joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in Senegal. During my time there, in a small village of about 500 people and myself, I began to understand the importance of attending to medical needs, which can change the lives of families. If the father gets sick, that dramatically impacts the whole family.”
Helping a community, he learned, directly involved managing its nutrition and health issues.
Fueled by his experience in Senegal, Leirer returned to the States and enrolled in nursing school, which he followed with a three-year stint in a trauma ICU, before he ever knocked on MSF’s door. His first assignment overseas was at a camp in the Central African Republic, where he practiced in-the-moment bush medicine and treated war wounded. After that, he moved on to a completely different project: supervising the internal-medicine department in a 300-bed hospital in Afghanistan.
“I had a huge staff to run," he recalls. "It was the only hospital in the area that was accessible to people, and it was my responsibility to build the hospital’s quality of care and medical standards. It was not so much about hands-on clinical work as it was about supervision and training.” Again switching gears, Leirer’s next assignment placed him in a medical search-and-rescue mission, aiding people trapped on refugee boats off the coast of Libya. “I do have a tendency of saying yes to too many things,” he admits.
But Leirer has no regrets over the hard path he’s chosen. “I've come to accept the sacrifices that come with that type of work,” he says. “The longer you work with it, the more you adapt to the bumps in the road. And if it feels like too much for you to handle, you need to accept that it’s something you probably shouldn't be doing.”
Forced From Home offers perspective on what MSF does in the field, and Leirer thinks the guided tour is invaluable in raising awareness and enlightenment here in the U.S. “As I often say in other interviews, we are all people at end of day,” he says of his interactions with displaced populations in the field. “Our baseline needs and wants are the same thing, even if our cultural differences and identities divide us.”
Inside the exhibit, 360-degree videos will immerse you in stressful camp life, where aid is meted out and water and supplies might be scarce, and you’ll even be confronted with the challenges of making split-second decisions about what to take in a run-or-die situation. You’ll also learn about the staggering levels of displacement happening now around the world from MSF personnel who’ve worked in the middle of the action.
Although there is a recruiting element to Forced From Home, Leirer acknowledges that “this type of of work is not for everyone. It’s a calling; once you do an assignment, you might realize it’s something you're good at, or it might be too overwhelming, and you’ll realize that you shouldn't be doing this at all,” he says. “We’re interested in creating a sense of common humanity. People’s worries, fears and joys are really quite similar, though they can be expressed differently.”
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And if you think you are right for the job? “I would say having a baseline awareness is a starting point,” Leirer explains. “You need to be aware of what’s going on in these places in a way more critical than just following the headlines — to ask, ‘How did things happen?’ If you engage in that kind of curiosity and see where it leads, you might start to pursue it and start asking, ‘What kind of work can I do? Do I have the right professional skills? Am I willing to going back to school if I don’t, or learn new languages?’”
A tour through Forced From Home is just the first step. The free exhibit opens on Monday, September 4, and runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Sunday, September 10, at Courthouse Plaza on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, before moving on to stints in Salt Lake City, Seattle, Portland, Oakland and Santa Monica.
If you are interested in working with MSF, you’re invited to attend free recruitment information sessions from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, September 11, at Galvanize Boulder, 1023 Walnut Street in Boulder, or 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 14, at the Posner Center, 1031 33rd Street in Denver. Register online in advance.