New Brunswick

The Fear Door: Life as a refugee an immersive experience in new exhibit

The Refuge Canada traveling exhibit, intended to highlight the plight of refugees around the world, is being shown at Moncton's Resurgo Place until Aug. 27.

Refuge Canada display at Moncton's Resurgo Place aims to create compassion

A woman with shoulder-length wavy dark hair wearing an aqua-coloured blouse with a small zipper stands in front of a white exhibit wall with lettering on it.
The exhibit was inspired by the photo of a Syrian toddler who drowned off the coast of Turkey while fleeing with his family, says Marie Chapman, CEO of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. (Submitted by Canadian Museum of Immigration)

For refugees who have been forced to flee their homes, a simple knock on the door can be frightening.

It may trigger memories of arrests, roundups, kidnappings and killings back in their home countries.

The Fear Door is the first display that visitors encounter in the Refuge Canada travelling exhibit now showing at Moncton's Resurgo Place. It's a green wooden door with violent gouge marks.

"We want to put people in the footsteps of what it might feel like to all of a sudden have your home pulled out from beneath you, by one circumstance or another," said Marie Chapman, CEO of the Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax, which put the exhibit together.

A damaged wooden door painted lime-green is open and shows two people with hoods over their heads, with their arms bound in front of them.
The scene behind the Fear Door when it opens. (Mariam Mesbah/CBC)

It was inspired by the 2015 photo of Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi who, along with his mother and brother, drowned off the coast of Turkey. His family had escaped the civil war in Syria in the hope of eventually making it to Canada.

Museum curators were so moved by the image of the toddler's lifeless body on the beach that they decided to create an exhibit to highlight the plight of refugees and Canada's mixed record in supporting them. 

"Refugees are people like us," said Chapman. "They're moms and kids and dads and lawyers and farmers and everything." 

The tent 

One of the most moving displays in the exhibit is an authentic United Nations Refugee Agency tent that visitors can crawl into.

Globally, millions of refugees are living in shelters exactly like this one, usually for years at a time.

Chapman remembers a special note sent to her from a young visitor who attended the exhibit in Kingston, Ont.

A small white tent with blue lettering. Empty plastic water jugs sit next to the tent.
A United Nations tent. Most refugees, often entire families, spend years living in a shelter like this. (Mariam Mesbah/CBC)

"We had a young girl who spent the first 12 years of her life in one of these tents," she said. 

"She got to show her friends where she had lived and it made her feel like 'This fancy museum tells my story, I must be worthy of that story.'"

A first for Resurgo Place 

It's the first time Resurgo Place, which is known for its fun, colourful transportation-based programming, has hosted this kind of travelling exhibit.

Sophie Auffrey, heritage development officer with the museum and transportation discovery centre, feels it's important to do so, as Moncton has recently welcomed refugees from a number of countries, including Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. 

A woman with long golden-brown hair stands in front of a damaged wooden door that is painted lime green. She is wearing a dark blue-grey button up blouse with white polka-dots and a brown cardigan that has dark chevron strips around the top.
Sophie Auffrey of Resurgo Place says the exhibit is designed with an immersive feel. (Mariam Mesbah/CBC)

Auffrey hopes the exhibit will give visitors a better understanding of what newcomers might have experienced before arriving in the province.

"The exhibit is designed in a way that has an immersive feel. You go through these stages as though it's just your everyday normal life, and then everything changes," she said. 

This includes a display of a living room where a family could be watching television progressing to one that has been completely destroyed. The exhibit also features videos and recordings from refugees describing what it has been like to have their lives uprooted. 

A room with a couch, old TV and photos where everything is askew, looking like the room has been torn apart.
The living room aftermath, showing bullet holes and destruction. (Mariam Mesbah/CBC)

Chapman hopes that visitors to the exhibit get the message that the refugee crisis is a global problem, and that living in what are considered politically stable countries does not make a person immune. 

"That was London during the blitz," she said. "These countries where we saw the Olympics being staged are then ripped apart. Being a refugee is a universal circumstance that really could happen to anybody." 

Chapman also hopes that by opening eyes to the refugee experience, the display will create compassion and understanding. 

A new exhibit at the Resurgo Place in Moncton aims to help people understand what refugees experience when they're forced to leave their homes. The CBC's Mariam Mesbah has that story.

"One extension of welcome to a family or a person or a classmate can make a huge difference in how people feel that they belong, and how quickly they feel they can contribute to their new home," she said.

"It's a cry for hope and of recognition in your heart that it could be you." 

The Refuge Canada exhibit will be at Resurgo Place in Moncton until Aug. 27.


Mariam Mesbah

Syndicated AP

Mariam Mesbah is an associate producer and reporter based in Moncton, N.B. Her work can be heard on CBC Radio shows across Atlantic Canada.