Ottawa closes, Chris gets emotional and Matt’s invention
At the end of Day 4 Wendy, or project coordinator, was frantically adding up the visitor numbers. I was about to close the gate on the final tour when we realised that if I did, our visitor numbers would be around 4,995. Unacceptable. So we rolled out our secret PR weapon of the cutest baby in the world with her mom the guide to invite a few more visitors to join us and got our visitors numbers up, past 5,000. Success.
Ottawa was great, so many volunteers turned up to help us with the behind the scenes and so many guides donated their time to talk to the public about their experiences. Some visitors did the whole tour twice they enjoyed it so much – although perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the right word. It’s not exactly Disney World in the refugee camp. But people are getting an emotional experience from it. After my last tour, I was taking some questions from the group about how much of an impact NGOs can have on the world, why there is so much conflict, neglect and hatred…………a lady asked me “Do you get discouraged?” “No” I replied “I get encouraged”. An interesting question that made me think. And made me slightly emotional. Even our mock refugee camp is relatively sanitised compared to a real one, but it is difficult not to get emotional about the subject matter and I too had to take a moment to compose myself and get a glass of water.
I’m pretty sure I speak on behalf of the team when I say – thanks to the volunteers who turned up to help us load and unload the truck and to run errands for us. Thanks to the guides, all experienced MSF staff, who did tour after tour, many of them for 4 days in a row – I know it’s not easy. And thanks to the 5,027 people who took the time to hear our stories.
So, to end Ottawa on a slightly lighter note - one of the reasons that I get encouraged is the dedication of MSF staff to making things better, as aptly illustrated by Matt, another one of the project logisticians:
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Ottawa grade school students speak about refugees
Security and Rwanda
So I spent most of today doing my usual evil border guard act, extracting bribes from slightly terrified “refugees”. Other interesting activities included baby-sitting the cutest baby in the world (daughter of a guide) and doing a tour. A lady who hadn’t said very much during the tour spoke up at the end, telling the group that she had been in Pakistan during the earthquake and that the tour gave a realistic insight into the problems that were faced and that she was very impressed with the work that MSF had done there which had saved many lives, notably of young children. It made me very proud. Her story is posted below.
At the end of the day I was briefly asked to be a real guard before our contracted night security turned up. Walking around the perimeter I met a beautiful and well dressed middle aged lady with her son. She was trying to get a photo of one of the tukuls, which are typical temporary shelters in Africa. She explained that her son had been born in one, but he was too young to remember. I asked where she was from – Rwanda. I’m in the middle of reading a book by James Orbinski, the former international president of MSF, and recently finished a part that I will never forget. He talked about how during the massacre there, rather than kill people, the militia would chop of people’s hands and feet and push them into the pit latrines. People would slowly bleed to death, unable to climb out. Parents begged or paid machete-wielding mobs to shoot their children rather than them face this horrible death. I invited her son to jump the fence and take a quick peek into a tukul similar to the one in which he was born.
Chris interviews aid worker visiting the event
In the news, and crossing borders at Ottawa
We’re just starting Day 3 of Ottawa. Day 1 saw 1,394 visitors pass through our mock-refugee camp, Day 2 saw 1,472. The team are all very happy that so many people are coming to see and hear what we want to tell them. And the response from the public has been fantastic. We have had newspaper and television reporters most of the time. “I’ll make sure I do justice to this message” the man with the magnificent moustache from the Ottawa Citizen said – and he did, the same day there was a report on the camp and a video of me being an evil border guard on the front page.
The public too have been quite moved. Notably at the malnutrition tent where we have had 2 people fainting so far. Also the mental health exhibit – actually the most basic, it is simply photos of the drawings that Columbian children have made of their war experiences – has been a difficult emotional experience for some people. A middle aged man had to take a moment to compose himself as I talked them around the exhibit yesterday. “It’s just [difficult] trying to imagine how people live in these conditions” his wife explained.
Our “evil border” guard routine has also raised a few eyebrows. Someone asked a guide yesterday if I was actually MSF staff. She was half convinced that MSF had allowed a rude rebel to hassle people from passing a makeshift check-point. The guide explained that having bribes extracted is part a sad reality for refugees. A few visitors (one journalist and two older people with accents suggesting that they might know something about the process) commented that harsh words and demands for payments is all too common for people wanting to pass.
Kids these days.
First I talk about it all day, then I feel like it… pooped. I can’t say it is so much exhaustion caused by the providing tours, but it is recovering from my Toronto life. Nurses at St. Michael’s Hospital are constantly telling me: “I could never work with all those sick people over seas… it’s too sad, stressful, and exhausting”. I’d like to argue, that if they can work a nursing shift work schedule -with poor breaks and multiple demands… MSF work is not too far fetched.
Today I gave a few tours. One was an international law class: High school grade twelve! Wow, high schools have come a long way, I had not heard of such a topic until when I was their age. I also spoke to a cynical French class, they didn’t feel french was a priority in their education… and they live in Ottawa!!! Well… did I have words for them. Sadly, they were not French words- but I mentioned all the countries, and opportunities I have missed out on while work with MSF because my French is so poor. I also mentioned the surprise that people in other countries have when they learn that I am a non-french speaking Canadian… In all countries I’ve worked in people speak at least 3 languages between local dialects, English, Arabic etc.
These classes asked some very good questions. I love giving tours of the exhibit to students. They seem to be a little more new the world have more hope for seemingly impossible problems. I am also surprised at their genuine interest in this rather morbid and hopeless topic matter. It is difficult balances optimistic stories with the realities of the countries I’ve worked in.
I’m looking forward to providing plenty more tours tomorrow. Tonight I’m hosting a movie called “living in an emergency”- I’ll have some explaining to do.
Setting up Ottawa
It’s 10pm and I’m just home from setting up the camp. We started at 830 and the core team, the guides and a bunch of friendly local volunteers turned up in force……….to wait for the truck from Chicago to arrive around 10am.
We worked hard in the sun, erecting tents and all manner of temporary shelters plus a variety of exhibits on subjects including nutrition, medical care, cholera, security and water.
Then it was time for rehearsal and for some lessons in vocal warming up from Jodie, the guide team leader. Jodie’s “ha ha ha” warming up lessons are free to view below.
Setting up in Ottawa!
Hi, I’m Chris. I spent most of 2009 working for MSF as logistician in Papua New Guinea – see www.msf.ca/blogs/ChrisH . This summer I’m one of 4 logisticians working on the Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City Project and I’ll be keeping you up to date on what’s going on behind the scenes and inside my head via this blog.
I like working for MSF; it’s a little bit different from working anywhere else. One of the reasons for this is that when something needs to get done, it gets done and it gets done fast. When Cholera came to Papua New Guinea, I went to the bank, got a pocket full of cash and started buying everything that was needed to start building a Cholera Treatment Centre the same day. In about a day and a half we had a functioning CTC. One of the other things that’s good about MSF is what the French call “témoignage”. That’s telling people about what we see – or bearing witness. The roots of MSF is founded in the principle of témoignage. Most NGO’s are only able to operate by promising to get on with the important job of medical care and not speaking out about the failings of governments who may be complicit in violence and/or failing to intervene. But MSF are different and believe it to be our role to tell the world what we see, even if that means being critical of governments.
It is the principle of bearing witness that the Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City is all about. We believe that people should be made aware of the problems that refugees and internally displaced people face.
On Sunday I arrived in Toronto, one of 4 logisticians for this project. On Monday the core team met – some have been working on this project for months. We discussed the anticipated visitor numbers, the advertising (most of which has been donated for free) and everyone’s roles. Then we picked up the 5 vehicles we needed to move the team and the kit from Toronto to Ottawa. At the same time our Logistical Coordinator was in Chicago checking the 18-wheeler truck that is now on its way. After we did the project in Australia recently and our box of “landmines” created a little bit of a stir with Australian port authorities (who promptly closed the port and calling the bomb disposal squad) we now make sure that our papier-mâché landmines are made locally and not moved across borders.
So after 6 hours driving (I got to drive the biggest truck, so I’m very happy) we got to the student accommodation where our team will be based for the Ottawa leg. I’m quite amazed the resources that have been put into the project. Pleasingly a lot of it is funded by donations – all the air travel is done thanks to generous people who donate their air miles – but we will have 60 tour guides (all experienced MSF staff) a project coordinator, a deputy project coordinator and administrator, a guide team leader, an office administrator, someone working on advertising, a school liaison officer, a logistical coordinator and us 4 logisticians. In addition a bunch of friends of MSF will turn up to help up set things up. The Ottawa show opens on Thursday 13th May, so if you are in the area, swing by and say hello!