Peace Scientists work for peace

Doctors Without Borders aka MSF aka Médecins Sans Frontières

MSF sets up camp where USA was born. SJ Dodgson MJoTA 2016 v10n2p117

Médecins Sans Frontières set up a camp on Philadelphia's Independence Mall on 03 Nov 2016, removed the camp after their last tour in the afternoon of 13 Nov 2016 and held a recruitment session on the Free Library of Philadelphia on 14 Nov 2016. These 12 days possibly were the most excitement Philadelphia has seen since 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed at Independence Hall, and when the Constitution of the United States of America was written in the long hot summer of 1787, both at the southern end of Independence Mall. 

Independence Mall is 3 city blocks of grass with buildings on the side. The field across Chestnut Street from Independence Hall has buildings on the 6th Street, western side, that include the footprint of George Washington's House, and another long building houses the huge bronze cracked Liberty Bell in a Visitors Center. At the northern end of Independence Mall, across Arch Street, is the Constitution Center, which includes a room filled with life-size bronze statues of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and a room with a copy of the Bill of Rights. 

MSF camp, which they called "Forced from Home" was in the field across from the Constitution Center, which on the 6th Street side includes a long building housing another Visitors Center. On the corner of 5th Street and Arch Street is a Quaker Meeting House built by Quakers who were led to fight in the American Civil War; this is one block from the home of Philadelphia Quakers who are declared pacifists, opposed to all forms of violence but active in nonviolent fights for civil and human rights.

05 Nov 2016, 2 days after MSF set up camp, Philadelphia's first Unity Cup final was played between the victors of 32 soccer teams, Liberia and Cote D'Ivoire. Cote D'Ivoire won with a single goal scored early in the first half. The match was preceded by a festival of nations, and finally, a parade of nations. I had not known that Philadelphia is home to a sizable Indonesian community. The festival and Unity Cup were organized by the Mayor of Philadelphia to bring refugees and migrants together in peace. Even though we were only 3 days away from national elections, I saw not a single political sign. The festival and match attracted over 2,000 visitors, far less than would have been if the Philadelphia bus, tram and train unions had not been on strike against SEPTA.

06 Nov 2016, the day the East Coast sets the clock forward one hour, the 2nd annual Philadelphia Veterans Day parade marched through Independence Mall. In 2015, I marched with the Aces Museum; this year I hung out near the dignitaries stand with my cameras and my single crutch. I was easily able to stand right next to the marchers; the SEPTA strike thinned out the crowds again, less than one-fifth the crowds as in 2015. The saddest part of this parade is always Thomas Edison High School, which lost more alumni in the Vietnam War than any other US school, 54. 

After the march, I walked behind the official dais, up the slight incline north towards the Constitution Center. Which is when I first saw the Forced from Home exhibit. I leaned against a window sill on the Visitors Center and videoed the exhibit without going in. Explaining how I have been to what was briefly Biafra, now part of Nigeria, and how I know folks who suffered greatly from starvation and bombing during the Biafran War when 3 million humans in the south-eastern part of Nigeria were systematically murdered. MSF was born out of the frustration felt by good folks who wanted to help but were unable. The only reason as many survived as did was because of good folks who did all they could to help. I have published several stories about this time, which can be reached by clicking here.

No political signs were seen anywhere in the MSF camp. They are determinedly not political, even as they do their best to clean up after disastrous elections and policies force folks to flee for their lives from their homelands. They do not accept donations from political parties, from governments, not even from corporations. Donations all come from individuals who want to pay for the hyperactive geniuses who staff the MSF teams to go where disaster needs them. Often at short notice. 

In Haiti, in October 2016, MSF had 8 fully equipped teams on the ground after the wind stopped blowing. I had traveled with Bedford Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Association by plane to the Dominican Republic, and then by bus to Port au Prince. saw them, and walked through their temporary hospital, in the parking lot of the main Port au Prince Hospital in 2010, in the weeks after the catastrophic Haitian earthquake. I had heard grumblings that Haitian nurses and doctors ran away, because they were not helping with the aid effort. MSF doctors walked me to the Nurses building, showed me the concrete floors that had collapsed in on itself, and told me that it had been packed with nurses and doctors for meetings, and that was where they were. That was when the full horror hit me, and when I understood the good work that MSF was doing, and is doing.

07 Nov 2016, Monday, the day before the US elections, when the SEPTA strike ended, the whole Independence Mall was closed off and 100,000 folks descended on center city Philadelphia for a final rally by Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton. I sat on a bench in front of the Constitution Center and watched the scurry of activity on Arch St, on 5th and 6th Streets. The Forced from Home exhibit sat quietly undisturbed, blocking my view of Independence Hall. I spoke with some in the crowd, they came from Boston, from DC: all fervent Hillary supporters. I doubt if she picked up a single vote, many were annoyed at having to wait so long and even when they were inside the Mall, they could not see the stage.

08 Nov 2016, Tuesday, was election day. Not until the early hours of 09 Nov 2016 did we learn that Hillary Diane had lost her bid for the White House. 

On 09 Nov 2016, the day of the monthly meeting of the Philadelphia Mayor's Commission on African and Caribbean Affairs. I walked west down Market Street from 8th Street towards City Hall on Broad St, past stunned-looking citizens. Inside City Hall, I greeted Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who gave me a huge smile. I told her that was the first smile I had seen all day, she said that her lawyer had been sobbing in her office all day. She is an enormous advocate of healing, helping and feeding, the Queen of West Philadelphia and a ready hand for anyone needing assistance. Her smile told me she is not going to stop. 

On 10 Nov 2016, MSF held a reception, showed a movie and held a panel discussion in the Academy of Natural Sciences. Which houses the world's first assembled complete dinosaur skeleton. Which was painstakingly removed from a swamp less than 2 miles from where I have been based for 33 years. The movie was made by the BBC, and described the journey of 2 photogenic identical twin physicians as they followed the routes of migrants fleeing by boat from Turkey to Lesbos. The link is on this page.

On 11 Nov 2016, I met friends from Amnesty International and took the hour-long tour of Forced from Home. Our tour guide was a psychologist, Dr Chip, whom you can see in a video above. The tour started with an introduction, then a 3D movie, then we were told to grab 5 items because we had 20 seconds to flee. We were crammed into a boat that had been used by folks fleeing Syrian war zones, explained that if you did not drown, you had a good chance of dying from suffocation, dehydration or cold after paying several thousand dollars for passage. We were led to border processing stations, where some nationalities were denied entrance, then to refugee camps that had more or less sanitation and threats of cholera, diseases from insects, violence. Every refugee camp is different, but every refugee has an identical aim: a desire to live.

After my tour, I walked across Arch St to the Constitution Center to hang out with George Washington and the signers of the Constitution. I read the Bill of Rights very carefully; below is the First Amendment. Our incoming president has told us he does not like main-stream press and wants to curb what they say, and wants to ban all incoming Muslims and register all US Muslims. Freedom of the press is sacred; without journalists being inside Biafra and reporting what they saw, the world would never have known of the atrocities. MSF depends on freedom of the press and freedom of religion. As do I.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances"

On 13 Nov 2016, the final day of the exhibit, I went with 2 of my adult children to Arch St Meeting House for Meeting for Worship. Which was filled with messages about always continuing to advocate for the oppressed, and fight non-violently for human rights for all. Amen. We then walked one block to the exhibit and I took the tour again with them. Our tour guide this time was Patricia, a nurse practitioner, with whom I had chatted on 11 Nov 2016, after walking back from the Constitution Center. 

On 14 Nov 2016 MSF organized a recruitment session in the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is across Logan Square from the Natural Academy of Sciences. Separated by roads and a park with huge dry fountain, and benches on which I saw more than 20 folks settling down for the night when I walked through it in the dark at 6pm.

Three field volunteers talked about what working with MSF means to an audience of over 200 interested health professionals and administrators. The main take-home message is 90% are rejected, but if you are still keen, gain the skills and experience MSF recruiters suggest, and try again. MSF only wants folks working with them who really, really want to be there. Another 90% I heard: only 10% of folks working on a project are foreign nationals; 90% are professionals from that country or refugee camp. Foreign nationals are given a stipend. MSF needs health professionals as well as administrative staff. Half of their volunteers are health professionals. Very important is speaking French or Arabic, because so many crises are in Arabic-speaking and French-speaking countries. If this sounds like you: good luck! You can find out more on their website click here