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This traveling exhibit is showing visitors what the refugee journey is really like

"Forced From Home," presented by Doctors Without Borders, brings visitors through the steps that many refugees take while leaving their homes.
by Alicia Hastey /

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — A few hundred yards from the Santa Monica Pier, where tourists ride roller coasters and Ferris wheels, a group gets into a small boat for a different kind of ride.

It’s part of an interactive exhibit called "Forced From Home" presented by Doctors Without Borders that wrapped up a six-city tour this month, with plans to resume touring in 2018.

The boats on exhibit, Doctors Without Borders volunteer guides explain, are small and fragile, and just part of the many challenges faced by those on the move.

“They're not designed to reach their destination. They’re designed to get you into it and off shore,” John Fiddler, a Doctors Without Borders field nurse, said.

There are an estimated 65 million people on the move worldwide according to the organization, which provides medical care in more than a dozen countries.

“The purpose of the exhibit is that people come away from the exhibit with…a personal understanding of the refugees, of the people that are on the move,” said Eric Pitts, an exhibit volunteer and Doctors Without Borders field staff member.

"Forced From Home" brings to life the experience of refugees by placing visitors in scenarios similar to those faced by people forced from their homes. Each visitor is given an identification card from a country impacted by the refugee crisis and then ushered through the first stop, where they are given seconds to choose the five things they would take with them when leaving their home.

The next step on the journey is to find a way out – in this case, it’s via boat, but the visitors soon find that their passage is not free and they must give up one of their five items in order to board the small, crowded vessel.

“Don’t forget,” Fiddler adds as he leads a group into a waiting boat, “the people who can get to this point are not the poorest of the poor. These are not the desperate poor, they have had some money."

From there the visitors find there way through several different types of camps, where they ultimately meet volunteers from Doctors Without Borders. The aid organization then works to provide everything a refugee might need, from setting up hospitals in refugee camps to helping vaccinate the population and providing clean drinking water.

Matthew Ayres, an exhibit visitor, told NBC News the experience was eye-opening. “When we made it to the [Doctors Without Borders] part of the tour where it is was recreating their camp site, I actually had a visceral reaction of feeling safe and of feeling protected and feeling like I’ve made it to a better place. Now stepping back and comparing it to our lives in general, it’s still pretty horrific,” he said.

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