SAN FRANCISCO — Put down the Frisbee and blot out the volleyball court.

Imagine, instead, a crowd of weary refugees setting up tents on a grassy park alongside the Bay. Smoke pours out of a barrel stuffed with contaminated clothes.

On the dinner menu is BP-5, a bland, high protein biscuit, or Plumpy Nut, a milk-and-peanut-based fortified paste.

And the beds? Some of them have holes in the middle for cholera patients too weak to visit the makeshift latrine.

"We ask everyone to imagine they have just been displaced," said Ya-Ching Lin, an epidemiologist for the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders. "They have to grab whatever they can and run for it."

The international organization, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, propped up what it calls a "Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City" on Tuesday that will be open for public visits through Sunday.

Schoolchildren will take field trips this week to the sobering, 8,000-square-foot camp juxtaposed with stellar views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Palace of Fine Arts.

"The basic purpose of it is as an awareness-raising tool," said Nicolas de Torrente, executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States. "We try to bring the reality of what it's like to be displaced, uprooted by war."


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The organization says 26 million people are internally displaced, or seeking safety from conflict within their own country. Another 16 million are refugees who have sought safety in another country. After a four-year decline, the number of refugees worldwide began rising again in 2006.

The United States resettled a total of 48,281 refugees in 2007. Of those, 6,708 went to California, many of them hailing from Iran, Myanmar and Iraq.

The work that Doctors Without Borders does in any given region depends on context, said Lin, who has worked for the group since 1997 in nine countries.

Her last assignment was in the Manipur state of northeastern India, where she said a decades-old conflict has damaged the medical system and made local doctors and nurses frequent victims of extortion. Other regions, she said, have deeper problems of malnutrition or infectious diseases that are carried by forced migrations and made worse by the conditions refugees face.

In Iraq, where 2.3 refugees fled and 2.5 million remain internally displaced, Doctors Without Borders provides surgical care in northern Iraq as well as across the border in Jordan.

"We basically carry out orthopedic and reconstructive surgery to victims of violence referred to us from Iraqi doctors," de Torrente said. "A lot of the specialists have left. A lot of the medical infrastructure has deteriorated. They need to be referred to a place where they can receive adequate care."

Lin said the diversity of challenges is reflected in the exhibit on display off Marina Boulevard.

There are urban shacks such as the kind built by those escaping rural violence in Colombia — home to as many as 4 million internally displaced people and former home to 552,000 refugees. Doctors Without Borders has 267 staff members there.

There are also simple huts made of wood or reeds or donated plastic sheets. Water is chlorinated and comes from a massive bag called the "bladder," and the medical center is little more than a table under a tent.

"Doctors see patients at a rate that doctors here couldn't imagine: 60, 70, 80 patients a day," Lin said.

The exhibit also showcases innovations, some developed by aid workers with Doctors Without Borders, that organizers say have helped save lives and improved the way refugee camps work. The organization, founded by French doctors in 1971, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

Reach Matt O'Brien at 925-977-8463 or mattobrien@bayareanewsgroup.com.

If you go
  • What: A Refugee Camp in the Heart of San Francisco. The first Bay Area visit of an exhibit that has traveled to 13 countries since 1995
  • Host: Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres
  • When: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today through Sunday
  • Where: Little Marina Green Park, Marina Boulevard and Yacht Harbor Road (near Baker Street), San Francisco