2006_09_ndtorrente.jpgLast week, the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres created an exhibit in Central Park called, A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City, to show New Yorkers what a refugee camp looks like and how MSF gives essential medical care and controls epidemics. The exhibit moved to Prospect Park yesterday, where it will be through this Sunday before it moves to other parts of the country. We spoke to Executive Director of MSF in the U.S., Nicolas de Torrente.

How did you decide to put a refugee camp in NYC? How long have you been planning this?
We feel it is especially appropriate to launch the national tour of our "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City" exhibit in New York, home to thousands of people who have fled violence and persecution in other parts of the world. The launch of this public education initiative represents a major effort on our part to bring attention to the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide -- issues that we feel are relevant and interesting to New Yorkers. A staggering 33 million people are displaced from their homes today, having fled violence in more than 60 different countries around the world--and the response to their plight remains inadequate. Until conditions improve, we must continue to raise awareness of the challenges faced by populations who have been forcibly displaced.

Following our launch in New York City's Central Park last weekend, the exhibit is now on its way to Brooklyn's Prospect Park where it will be open from September 20-24. From there, we'll take it to Atlanta's Piedmont Park (September 27-October 1), Nashville's Centennial Park (October 4-8), and additional cities in 2007 to be announced.

Most Americans are familiar with the Red Cross - what do you think Americans know about Doctors Without Borders? How do you want to change or enhance that?
While awareness of the type of work that our organization does in the field - medical humanitarian assistance - has increased in the United States in recent years, we still have a lot of work to do. For example, many serious humanitarian crises, such as the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are still vastly underreported in the media, and the magnitude of the problem of forcibly displaced populations around the world does not receive the attention necessary to propel an adequate humanitarian response.

We also need to improve understanding and support for the independence of humanitarian action from any political, religious, or other agenda. Independence is absolutely necessary in order to reach people in need wherever they are and whatever the circumstance of their plight. If humanitarian action is associated or perceived to be a part of a broader Western military or political strategy, the humanitarian space we operate within will continue to shrink. Public education initiatives such as "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City" are one of the primary ways that we work to raise awareness of these issues.

What do you hope New Yorkers will take away from the exhibit?
We hope that the experience of going through the exhibit, and especially the personal interaction with our tour guides, who are humanitarian aid workers with experience in many corners of the world, will bring home the reality of refugee and IDP situations around the world. We want to remind people that living as a refugee or internally displaced person is not a choice, it is a life fraught with violence, fear, and uncertainty.

People leave their homes only as a very last resort; violently driven from their homes in the millions, where they are deliberately targeted by belligerents, and where they find themselves with limited access to food, clean water, security, medical care, and with well-justified fears for their survival. And we want people to recognize that the response to their plight remains inadequate.

How long have you worked with Doctors Without Borders?
I first joined MSF in 1993 as an administrator in Tanzania, where I saw more than 150,000 refugees arrive from Rwanda in one day in late April 2004. I helped organize assistance for them, and I only realized two months later that these same people had essentially been taken hostage and brought over the border by their leaders, who had just perpetrated genocide
inside Rwanda. This was one of the most eye-opening and difficult experiences I have had as an aid worker. This realization led, just a few months later, to the withdrawal of MSF from Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania. This was an exceptional case where aid was diverted to an extreme degree by criminal leaders who saw refugee camps as sanctuaries; in this case, our organization decided that withdrawal was the better option.

In the aftermath of the genocide, I became Head of Mission for MSF’s programs in Rwanda. Later, I worked as an emergency coordinator in Somalia, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Macedonia, and Afghanistan. And I've been Executive Director of MSF in the US since 2001.

What are some ways New Yorkers can help?
Awareness is the first step to taking action, and there are many ways to help. From raising these issues with politicians, to ensuring school curriculums cover these topics, to supporting organizations who work with refugees and IDPs both here and abroad, to volunteering with an organization like MSF, we hope that New Yorkers will find their own unique ways to help propel a stronger response to the plight of displaced people around the world.

And some questions about the city...:
What is your favorite place in NYC?
333 Seventh Avenue (MSF headquarters)

What's your favorite city charity?
Visiting Nurses Service of New York

Who's better this year, the Yankees or Mets?
As head of a neutral organization, I can't answer that question!

For more information about Medicins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders, here is their website.