Doctors Without Borders simulates refugee journeys in Santa Monica to combat rampant hostility and indifference

By Joe Piasecki

Doctors Without Borders aid workers lead an interactive tour of the “Forced from Home” installation near the Santa Monica Pier
Photo by Joe Piasecki

Doctors Without Borders wants you to imagine yourself in a refugee’s shoes.

A tour of the international humanitarian organization’s “Forced from Home” exhibit next to Santa Monica Pier begins with immersive 360-degree video footage from refugee camps in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

Then things get personal. Visitors must quickly choose a handful of cards representing objects they’d bring (clothes, animals, medicine, transportation) if forced to flee their homes. Before proceeding to the next stop — a rubber raft like those employed in desperate Mediterranean crossings — each must sacrifice a card to pay for safe passage. Then comes a barbed-wire camp fence, makeshift tent housing and a two-gallon jug of water to represent a day’s ration for drinking, cooking and bathing.

These hour-long guided tours of the global refugee experience are led by Doctors Without Borders aid workers who’ve logged missions at camps in Lebanon, Somalia, South Sudan, Greece, Ukraine and most recently Bangladesh. They communicate not only big-picture truths about conditions facing the 65 million displaced people worldwide, but also more personal aspects of what it’s like to be or interact with refugees.

Doctors Without Borders physician Ahmed Abdalrazag, a former refugee in Tunisia who grew up to lead the organization’s 2011 field mission there, has seen both sides. He wants people to know that refugees don’t choose their fates.

“Saddam’s regime was shelling my house, so we could either leave or be collected in plastic bags,” he says.

Doctors Without Borders U.S. Executive Director Jason Cone, who visited the exhibit on Tuesday, hopes visitors leave not only better informed but feeling a little more connected to the plights of so many people around the world. That’s especially important, he says, when political campaigns across Europe and in the U.S. have weaponized social apathy into culture-war hostility toward refugees, when the vast majority of displaced people are taken in by poorer nations bordering on conflict zones.

“At the heart of this exhibit is trying to close this tremendous psychological distance we have between people here at home and those millions of people who are refugees, and to get people to see them as human beings confronting a series of incredibly difficult choices. We try to simulate those kinds of choices: What would you bring if you only had a few minutes to leave your home? What are you going to give up along the way to get yourself across a border in the middle of the night? We’re really trying to give people a closer proximity to, honestly, the horror of having to leave your home under duress in extreme conditions of war and persecution,” he says. “This, we hope, is a way to erode hostility to others who are far off and made to seem like threats to an American way of life, when actually they’re not that much different than us.”


“Forced from Home” operates from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Sunday (Nov. 19) in the parking lot next to the Santa Monica Pier. Tours are free and last about an hour. Visit for more information.