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Interactive exhibit at Schenley Park takes visitors through world of refugees

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, 10:51 a.m.

The tiny red ring of plastic tape used to flag a child in danger of dying from hunger elicited a chill in 13-year-old Alexandria Westray.

She couldn't believe the wrists of severely malnourished child refugees were that small.

Westray joined about a dozen peers in Oakland Thursday touring a Doctors Without Borders' refugee camp traveling exhibition, an experience that included exploring models of makeshift shanties and tents, learning about rudimentary water and food systems and sitting in a lifeboat like ones used by refugees escaping to Europe by sea. More than 3,000 people died or went missing last year in such passages.

“What stood out to me was when (the guide) told us some people live in these camps for 20 years. I always thought it was temporary,” said Westray, a student at the Campus at Carlow University, an independent Catholic school. “It made me feel sort of guilty because I'm going to live in a nice home for probably as long as I live, and there's generations of people being born in these refugee camps, and that's really sad.”

Westray's group from The Campus at Carlow University was among the first in greater Pittsburgh to experience “Forced From Home,” a 10,000-square-foot guided pop-up exhibit on display through Monday at Schenley Park. The free tour takes participants on the path of a typical refugee, with interactive stations like choosing five things to pack and feeling the weight of water jugs used for drinking and bathing.

“I didn't realize how much water an American uses as opposed to them,” said John Evans, 13, who learned most U.S. residents use 90 gallons of water a day and most refugees are limited to six.

“I didn't think five people lived in like a really small space,” said Aidan Minnock, 12.

Jason Cone, executive director of New York-based international humanitarian medical relief group Doctors Without Borders, said the goal is to get people thinking about what it's like to have to pack up and leave everything behind amid a crisis that strips families of a state to call home — from a human standpoint, not political, ethnic or religious ones.

“I hope this exhibit allows people to begin to understand that and chip away at their own personal fears they may have of refugees,” said Cones, who lamented the world is experiencing “the worst forced displacement of people since World War II.”

More than 65 million people living today were forcibly displaced from their homes, with 12.4 million newly displaced in 2015 as the plight of Syrians intensified, federal data show.

Since last October, Pennsylvania has taken in 3,679 refugees — about 650 of whom arrived in Allegheny County - according to data by the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program. Federal resettlement benefits expire in 90 days, by which time refugees are expected to have a job and pay their own nonsubsidized rent.

“A lot of mainstream Americans don't realize that they have to go to work so quickly after arrival,” said Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee and immigrant services at Jewish Family & Children's Services of Pittsburgh. “They may not be literate in their own language, and they have to function in our society — and they do.”

The Obama administration has set a goal of admitting 110,000 refugees from around the world in 2017 and 10,000 from Syria — a pledge stirring controversy among those who say they're concerned that higher numbers of refugees pose higher safety risks. Countries such as Turkey have taken in more than 2.5 million.

It takes an average of 18 months to three years for a refugee to get through the vetting process and arrive in Pennsylvania, Aizenman said.

“As I stand here today, 60,000 Syrian refugees are stranded in the desert in northeastern Jordan,” Cones said. “They face dehydration and starvation. They face a shuttered Jordanian border on one side, and the war zone they have fled on the other. Humanitarian agencies are blocked from reaching them.”

Of more than 13 million people who've fled Syria, six million are internally displaced and 4.8 million “are eking out an existence in neighboring countries, hoping for asylum in Europe or other regions,” Cones said.

“We talked on the bus on the way here,” said The Campus at Carlow University teacher Suzie Ament, 62, as her students took cover from a light rain, “that no matter how icky it is for us — we're cold, we're tired, we've been walking — we're going to go back to some place warm and have lunch.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or

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