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On Exhibit: the agony of the refugee

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Six days out of port their food and water ran out. Like thousands of others, they had fled their native Vietnam on makeshift barges only to have their exodus threatened by starvation.

Nearly a meter of water stood in the bottom of their boat, but they had grown too weak to continue bailing. Thong Quang Minh writes of his experience,"One of us said "We need food to survive.' We talked together and I asked a friend of Mr. Chuong, who was very weak, to kill Chuong for meat. His friends came closer to him and asked him. Then they told me what he said: "Please wait until tomorrow. I'll die. Then you'll eat me.' "

They didn't wait.

The life of these refugees and others is told through personal testimonies and black-and-white photos in Forced Out: The Agony of the Refugee in Our Time, currently on display at the Peace Museum. The exhibit, cosponsored by Amnesty International and organized by the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, is based on a book of the same title by Carole Kismaric.

From the scene of an Argentinean family hanging on a wall life-size silhouettes inscribed with names of loved ones who disappeared during the 1976-78 regime of General Jorge Rafael Videla to the image of a young Vietnamese man building his own prosthetic leg from wood, leather, and an old tire, the exhibit's more than two dozen wall-size photographs attempt to portray the experiences of refugees and those they left behind in human rather than political terms. Rebecca Krucoff, the museum's outreach coordinator, says the personal narratives--excerpts from interviews, articles, and journals--are meant to reinforce the human impact: the danger of remaining, the distress of fleeing, and the difficulty of adjusting to an often hostile new culture. "We in the first world can't know or relate to what it really feels like," she says. "And maybe we're not supposed to. But what we can do is respect these people as individuals by hearing their story in their own voice."

More than 40 wars are now being fought on four continents--civil wars and wars between governments. For each life lost, hundreds, even thousands, are displaced from their homes and often must seek asylum in other countries. By the end of 1989 more than 15 million people had fled their homelands because of conflict or persecution.

In her introduction to the exhibit Kismaric writes that the show's goal is to break down misconceptions about refugees and indifference to their plight. World War II displaced some ten million people, she says, but they were resettled within a decade "largely as a result of the concern, determination, and generosity of a world community that sought to make the impracticable possible." In contrast, she says, today's refugee is met with "cynicism, silence, and indifference."

In one of the show's most compelling photos, a Salvadoran woman grimaces beside a list of family members' names, 28 of which are crossed out in stark red, each one the victim of death by torture.

Another photograph shows the demolished interior of a home in Palo Grande, El Salvador. Sunlight streams through the blasted-out roof and shattered windows. Bullet holes scar the walls. Tables, chairs, pots, and pans are tossed around the room. Only a painting of Christ on one wall is unscathed.

Marjorie Byler, deputy director of programs for Amnesty International, says her organization's primary interest in the exhibit was to foster support for a more equitable asylum process, especially in the United States. Despite the 1980 Refugee Act, which outlawed discrimination against asylum candidates because of their nationality, America still grants refugee status according to cold-war divisions. Byler says that only 2 percent of the refugees from Haiti, Guatemala, or El Salvador (more than one million Central Americans flee to the United States each year) are granted asylum in this country, compared to 95 to 97 percent of those from Eastern Europe. "What we have in 1991 is the practice of returning people to the country of origin that they fled out of fear," she says. "It is an issue of bias on the part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Justice Department." And it is de facto discrimination, she says, to place a detention center in Texas 20 miles from the nearest town, with no pay phone and no instructions on how to get assistance or even how to place a collect call.

This exhibit pulls no punches in depicting the promise and peril of the United States as sanctuary. In one photograph three refugees lie atop one another on an inflated inner tube, frantically paddling to cross the Rio Grande to El Paso. Another depicts the prisonlike atmosphere of a Haitian refugee compound in Miami. Seated on a gravel pile and an old milk crate, three women look dejectedly at the fences and barbed wire they escaped to.

There is also a photograph of a tent city in Turkey for Iraqi Kurdish refugees. "This exhibit is always timely, but it really hits home now," says Krucoff. "We hear the president say that we'll get out of there with the minimum casualties possible. Well, that's fine, but we forget that we'll still be displacing hundreds, even thousands, from their homes."

Forced Out is on display through March 31 at the Peace Museum, 430 W. Erie. The museum is open noon to five every day but Thursday, when it's open noon to six. Admission is $3.50 for adults, $2 for students and senior citizens. For more information call 440-1860.

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