This is my first letter to you, the readers of Alert, since becoming president of MSF-USA’s Board of Directors following Dr. Deane Marchbein’s tenure. It is a tremendous privilege to serve in this position and to function as, among other duties, an interface between MSF’s supporters and those we seek to assist.
My interactions with MSF began in a formal sense in 2008, when my application to work in the field as a surgeon was accepted. During the subsequent “Information Days” orientation in New York, I received both a broader sense of what field work would be like and a T-shirt linked to an MSF-USA campaign called “A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City.” The shirt—which I still have—had printed on the back in large characters: “33 million people uprooted by war.” I thought then that it was unfathomable that so many people could be displaced by conflict and so little attention paid to their plight.
Now, just eight years later, the number of people displaced globally has almost doubled, to an astonishing 65.3 million. There seems to be a greater awareness of this unwillingly itinerant population, but the tenor of discussion around them is often degrading, demeaning, and alarmist. Worse still, some governments and others are working to turn away the displaced rather than uphold their obligations to accept them under international law.
For my part, I have performed eight surgical missions with MSF since 2008. Most were in or adjacent to conflict settings, so I’ve seen firsthand both the toll war takes on individuals—especially civilians—and the ways in which it decimates health systems, families, and the broader fabric of societies. In far too many places, people must make the most painful of choices: Do they try to endure life in a land where education, employment, food insecurity, and the safety of one’s family are in constant jeopardy, or seek respite in another region of their country, or beyond its borders?
Our teams work with people living with the consequences of these impossible decisions every day. And this fall, in an attempt to convey what we see to our supporters and the public at large, MSF-USA will launch a multi-year, multicity exhibit called Forced From Home. This exhibit, which kicks off in New York City on September 16, personalizes the experiences of individuals fleeing conflict and other crises, illustrating in fine relief (and even in virtual reality) both the challenges they face and the nature of MSF’s emergency response.
We also hope that Forced From Home and its attendant events and discussions might counter prejudices, fear, and xenophobia to inspire dialogue about the commonality of humanity and the rights we all seek and deserve as human beings. This issue of Alert will tell you much more about Forced From Home and its various elements, as will forcedfromhome.com. We hope you will find it compelling, and we hope you will join us if and when you can.
John Lawrence, MD
President, MSF-USA Board of Directors