If 12-year-old Sean Robertson was forced to flee his south Minneapolis home, the cats would be coming, too.
“I think of animals,” he said, “as family.”
Given 30 seconds to choose five items for his journey, Sean ignored the small card with an image of toys and snatched the animal one instead.
He kept it with him as he and others walked through an imaginary refugee crisis Monday night, all in the shadow of U.S. Bank stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
The Commons park has been transformed this week into an outdoor interactive exhibit meant to rally public awareness about the more than 68.5 million refugees and people displaced within their own countries — a number on the rise.
“It’s a record high. It’s higher than we had in World War II,” said Courtney Ridgway of Doctors Without Borders, an international group that offers medical and humanitarian aid and is putting on the exhibit.
The exhibit, “Forced From Home,” runs through Sunday. The tour will next be making stops in Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta and San Antonio.
Organizers expect about 5,000 people to pass through the exhibit in each city. This is its third year; the exhibit has already been on the east and west coasts.
During the hourlong tour, group guides explain why millions flee their homes, pushed out by war, political strife, lack of access to medical care, famines or natural disasters.
“One of our core principles is this idea of bearing witness,” Ridgway said. “This organization is not afraid to speak out when they feel that people aren’t paying attention.”
At one early stop, visitors pick five cards representing items they would take with them in their flight. But some of these cards get abandoned at later stations as forms of payment to reach safety.
Brittni Peterson, a 23-year-old nursing student, dropped her card with blankets on it first, holding onto her water and medical cards as long as she could. Then she stepped into a small boat, similar to those used to transport Syrians across the Mediterranean Sea.
“I think everyone should have this experience,” Peterson said. “It makes you grateful.”
At one exhibit, Sean and his family stood among a small cluster of tents and tried to picture making a home in one. Dolls made out of rags and plastic bags sat outside the tents, along with other homespun toys from refugee camps. Two pairs of children’s shoes sat near one tent — just a little smaller than Sean’s Nike sandals.
His 9-year-old sister, Charlotte, also held fast to her animal card. But Sean’s parents, Thom and Leah Robertson, each had saved a medicine card. Sean, they explained, has asthma.
“How many times do parents try to speak to privilege?” Thom Robertson said. “This exhibit is a very visceral way of experiencing what that might look like.”
Just before the exit, the Robertson family paused to write postcards to aid workers in the field. Sean jotted a note explaining that he couldn’t really begin to imagine the realities of being forced from home. But still, he wrote: “Thank you for helping.”