Syria's refugee crisis focus of interactive exhibit in Cambridge
BOSTON >> What's it like to flee Syria as a refugee?
Global relief and development organization Oxfam America and Microsoft are hoping to demonstrate the harrowing ordeal many migrants endure through a free exhibit Wednesday evening at the tech giant's research and development center in Cambridge.
Participants in "The Refugee Road" will be assigned the real-life story of a Syrian refugee that the Boston-based Oxfam America has worked with.
As they move through the exhibit, some will be randomly called on to share their refugee's experience as photos taken by Oxfam staffers at border crossings and refugee camps help illustrate the plight.
Others will be asked to act out parts of the journey, like carrying bags of clothes and other personal possessions or being subjected to interrogations as if they were at a border crossing.
"Experiential events like this bring emotions alive and stir a deep sense of identification," said Nancy Delaney, Oxfam America's director of community engagement. "Ultimately, we want people to come away with a primary understanding: everyone on earth has the same basic needs. It is only our circumstances — where we live and the culture into which we are born — that differ."
Syria's civil war has displaced an estimated 11 million people since erupting in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring revolutions that saw old regimes fall across North Africa and the Middle East.
Oxfam, which was founded in Oxford, England in 1942 and now has more than a dozen affiliates working in nearly 100 countries, says it has helped provide more than 1.5 million displaced Syrians with food, water and shelter.
The life stories highlighted Wednesday represent some of the most common experiences of Syrians, said Oxfam America spokeswoman Emily Bhatti.
They include those who have flooded Lebanon, Jordan and other neighboring countries, those who have settled in North America, Europe and elsewhere, and those who remain in Syria, either by choice or because financial or other reasons prevent them from fleeing.
The event is meant, in part, to call on the U.S. to redouble its efforts to resettle Syrians.
Just over 1,700 refugees have been admitted into the U.S. since last fall, when President Barack Obama set the relatively modest goal of resettling 10,000 Syrians by October 2016.
"At this rate, we won't even meet half of that goal by then," said Ali Aljundi, Oxfam America's project officer for Syria. "And even if the U.S. were to reach its goal, it would still be a drop in the bucket."
Germany, in contrast, has already taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrians; Canada has admitted nearly 27,000 since November.
Top Congressional Democrats, including presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, urged the administration last week to speed up the process, but Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders have called for a pause.
They sought tighter regulations following November's deadly attacks in Paris, where at least one of the perpetrators allegedly gained entry to the country posing as a Syrian refugee.
But Oxfam and other advocates say the U.S. refugee resettlement program is already one of the world's most stringent, with multiple levels of background checks and investigations.
"Anti-refugee rhetoric and cynical efforts by politicians to create more hurdles won't make the U.S. any safer," says Aljundi, who came to Massachusetts from Syria in 2012 to attend graduate school. "Thousands of Syrian refugee families are waiting in limbo. Their lives hang in the balance."
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