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Exhibit is a sobering look at refugees' plight

A group of South L.A. sixth-graders learns the reality of life in camps for tens of millions displaced people.

October 27, 2008|Francisco Vara-Orta | Vara-Orta is a Times staff writer.

All you can eat for the entire day: 2 1/2 cups of rice, 1 1/2 cups of beans, a few grams of salt and sugar, and half an ounce of oil to cook with.

For days, months, maybe even years, this is the extent of what's on the menu.

"No guacamole, no tortillas or enchiladas," added Dr. Tomoko Kurokawa, a local physician who told 14 middle school students from South Los Angeles about life in refugee camps.

The kids' collective response: "Aww, no way!" and "Blech."

But it's a reality for 42 million people worldwide who live in refugee camps from Colombia to Sudan to Iraq to Cambodia. The reality is captured in a simulated refugee camp the 14 sixth-graders toured recently in Griffith Park.

The daily rations, contained in clear plastic bags and prescription bottles, were placed in a silver tin saucer that visitors held as they made their way through the camp.

It's a stand-out moment in the traveling exhibit, "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City," organized by Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian aid agency that has won the Nobel Peace Prize for relief efforts in war-torn nations.

The sixth-graders were from Synergy Kinetic Academy, where 90% of students are on the free-and-reduced-price lunch program, and 87% are considered socio-economically disadvantaged.

The group, impeccably dressed in their uniforms of white dress shirts with navy ties, asked questions, took in grim statistics and completed worksheets as two tour guides explained life for children and families in a war zone.

Kurokawa, a family practice doctor in Panorama City who worked for Doctors Without Borders in Liberia in West Africa, told the students at the tour's entrance that people living in camps worldwide are divided into two groups: refugees and IDPs.

Kurokawa then asked, "What does IDP mean? Here's a hint: P is for people. But what does the I in IDP mean?"

"Indocumented?" replied Yozhua Montes, an eager 10-year-old from South Gate.

Kurokawa and other staffers grinned, and she explained that "IDP" stands for "internally displaced persons," about 26 million people seeking refuge within their own countries. The other 16 million are refugees.

The tour, which takes about 40 to 60 minutes, is free and open to the public through Nov. 2. Visitors see a shelter area with makeshift tents put together from scraps and tarps, an outdoor latrine area, a health clinic. There are also banners offering stories of those uprooted by war.

At one stop, Kurokawa posed a question: "If somebody came to your house and told you that you only have three minutes to pack and leave, what would you take?"

"Your family," one voice immediately responded. "Water, money, blankets," said one girl. "Cellphone," said another. "Video games!" one boy said, provoking laughter.

When the students saw the makeshift tents, which are no taller than 4 feet or wider than 5, the group's other tour guide, Dr. Matthew Spitzer, showed them why a video game would be of no use.

Holding up a toy truck crafted from golden tin cans, Spitzer said, "not only do they not have a Nintendo Wii, they may only have cans they can make a toy out of."

Spitzer handed the truck to the students. A silence blanketed the group as the youngsters inspected the truck but didn't seem enticed to play with it.

Spitzer, president of Doctors Without Borders' board of directors, said traveling exhibits are viewed by organizers as a hands-on way to convey the reality of those displaced by war or disease. They are part of a dual mission, he said. Humanitarian groups not only work in refugee camps, but must also raise awareness in other countries.

In August, an African village was set up at Los Angeles' Holman United Methodist Church and other churches to show how 12 million children have been orphaned by AIDS. The Doctors Without Borders exhibit last visited Los Angeles in 2000, when the refugee camp population worldwide was 39 million.

"People have seen pictures, or heard statistics about people suffering in these foreign countries," Spitzer said. "But it's always just a lot of talk. It's more effective to show: 'This is what you would only be able to eat' rather than tell it."

The students were clearly disgusted by the prospect of digging a hole in the ground to go to the bathroom and of unrelenting bouts of diarrhea caused by infectious diseases such as cholera and malaria. They whined when told they would have to carry 5-gallon water jugs to and from their camp for miles each day.

But the students seemed most disturbed by a panel of five drawings by refugee camp dwellers around their ages, 10 to 12.

One drawing depicts people firing guns from a helicopter and a plane dropping bombs onto a neighborhood. One shows a group of soldiers in black combat gear raiding a house, and another portrays the results of a massacre, with dead bodies colored over in blood red.

"That looks like what my parents went through in El Salvador," Carlos Marin, 11, said quietly to teacher Jennifer Hazelton. El Salvador endured a 12-year civil war in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hazelton then asked Marin if he saw such scenes himself.

Marin replied no, adding, "I was born here, but my parents told me it looked like that when they left there."

"Well, then, they're refugees too," Hazelton said.

"Oh, wow, I had no idea," Marin said.

A classmate could be heard in the background: "I'm just glad that's not happening here."

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francisco.varaorta @latimes.com

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Traveling exhibit

"A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City" will remain at Griffith Park, in the Crystal Springs Picnic Area, through today.

The exhibit then travels to its final Los Angeles area stop at the Santa Monica Pier parking lot (Ocean Avenue at Colorado Boulevard), where it will be from Friday to Sunday.

Hours for the free exhibit at both sites are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Group tours should be scheduled in advance by calling Rachel Belt at (212) 763-5707. For more information, visit www.doctorswithoutborders.org/refugeecamp.

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