Visiting Life On the Run

Doctors Without Borders sets up a third-world refugee camp in central Vienna

Top Stories | Christian Cummins | November 2012

Photo: C. Cummins

It’s a bright Friday in October on Karlsplatz in Vienna’s 4th District, and tourists and students from the nearby Technical University are lounging around the artificial pond reflecting the oriental-looking dome-roofed Karlskirche. It’s a familiar Viennese scene, but today everything is a bit different.

Across the pond from the church, a third-world refugee camp has sprouted up.

There are simple, white pitched tents and a line of latrines housed in thin, tall wooden-huts. This is a simulation camp, set up by the humanitarian charity Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, to demonstrate the conditions faced by refugees and show what the medics are doing with the limited funds available to them, to help alleviate suffering. (See also "Saving Lives at the Front" in June 2012 TVR.)

There’s a vaccination centre equipped with a small brazier to burn used needles and a cool box to store prophylactics when one has no electricity. An improvised cholera treatment centre grabs my attention, where drips hang from the fabric walls of a rectangular tent and buckets have been set under holes in the patients’ beds. They are there to collect the free-flowing diarrhoea caused by cholera, a frightening disease that can dehydrate its victim within hours and often strikes during a refugee crises. There’s also a tank for dispensing jerry cans of clean drinking water and a stall for food rations, with daypacks of beans and rice and small bottles of cooking oil.

Indeed, there’s a sample of everything you might see at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya with, thankfully, the notable exception of the hungry, frustrated and often traumatised refugees who overcrowd the camps that dot crisis areas across the world.

There are an estimated 43 million displaced persons worldwide, people who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution or natural disasters. Some of them cross national borders, others – known as "Internally Displaced Persons" in the official jargon – find shelter elsewhere in their home countries. While most still need help to survive, their plight usually gets scant attention in the global media.

"Our organisation was founded by a coalition of medics and journalists," says MSF veteran Florian Teutsch, 31, a logistics expert with experience on missions in Zimbabwe and Columbia, "and we see creating awareness as a vital part of our work." The 12-day exhibition is part of a programme of events in Vienna, Lower Austria and Burgenland organised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and called the "The Long Week of Flight."


Inter-cultural care

Today Florian is showing a Viennese school group around the Karlsplatz camp. It’s a hands-on experience. The pupils test the circumference of the arm of a doll representing an underweight child and taste some of the sweet, peanut-based high-energy bars called Mr. Plumpy that are used to fight infant malnutrition. And, of course, they peek into the toilets: "That’s disgusting!" giggles one teenage girl as she sees the simple squat toilet, two foot-treads over a deep hole.

"It’s anything but disgusting," counters Florian: "It’s clean. Who would prefer to sit on a toilet seat with all the filth mounting up?" The pupils, perhaps thinking of journeys on regional Austrian trains, quickly agree and are delighted when he shows them the different utensils used at the latrine for intimate hygiene, including the small pebbles used in many Islamic countries.

"Remember," Florian tells the school kids, "No method is better. It is just about respecting cultural differences." There’s laughter later in the information tent as the MSF worker shows diagrams urging camp residents to be hygienic. Pictures are always more effective than the written word in multi-lingual camps with high rates of illiteracy, but these graphics make it look like you should wash your hands before going to the toilet? Why? One bright spark in the group knows: "Because in Arabic you read from right to left!"

Besides the fun that helps engage people, there are shocks. A circular tent barely the size of a boxing ring would be shared by 15 people to sleep. The daily water ration of five litres, for drinking, cooking and washing, looks even smaller than it sounds.

"All those things that you might not be able to understand when you just read about them seem very real. You can feel things and really empathise," says Florian.

Anyone can join a tour group and entry is free. Dieter, a white-haired man in his 50s, tags along with the group as Florian shows how an old fashioned stethoscope can be used to gauge the health of an unborn child.

"I am astounded at how much the medics can do to help the people in the countries where they are needed," says Dieter, who reports that he regularly donates to MSF and wanted to come and have a closer look at what happens to the funds.

"I think it is so important that the situation in these camps is transmitted to the people here in Vienna," agrees Nora, a young woman who has also joined the group. "We can’t afford to ignore the problems people face in the refugee camps."

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