In the center of Daley Plaza, middle-school students crowded into a small boat, sitting on the sides or the floor. They passed around a life jacket, which they learned really wasn’t capable of keeping a person afloat in the Mediterranean Sea for an extended period of time yet could cost a refugee hundreds of dollars.

“You think about the problems that I complain about, it isn’t anything compared to what people in different countries go through,” said Ivan Caffey, an eighth-grader at Sherman School of Excellence on the South Side.

Caffey said he was “inspired” by an exhibit set up in tents in the heart of Chicago by Doctors Without Borders: “Forced From Home,”  which runs 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday through this Sunday. The aim is to show what displaced refugees escaping from countries like Afghanistan, Syria or Honduras go through to get away from conflict or persecution.

Visitors can take a guided tour lead by experienced aid workers through nine different stations, which include interactive activities and a virtual reality experience.

Students from the Sherman School of Excellence learn about crossing the Mediterranean Sea as refugees at the Forced From Home exhibit from Doctors Without Borders. | Emily McTavish/Sun-Times

Jayda Hartley, a seventh-grader at Sherman, said seeing how many people could fit in the boat was the most surprising aspect of the tour. She added that she learned a lot about what happens in other countries.

“Even though we have difficult stuff that’s going on right now, we need to make sure we put our heads together so we can learn from our mistakes because everything in this city doesn’t compare to what’s around us,” Hartley said.

For Courtney Bercan, a nurse from Vancouver, Canada, the exhibit shows the misunderstandings of the refugee experience and process to reach asylum.

“It’s really important for people to know and understand the current conditions of the world and how human lives are being affected by policies,” Bercan said. “I think the fact that any one of us would seek safety, with our family … if we were living in subhuman conditions. Any one of us would do it if we were brave enough to, and these people are being treated as though seeking safety is a crime.”

According to organization, less than 1 percent of the 68.5 million people displaced worldwide will be resettled.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced plans to limit the number of refugees allowed to resettle here to 30,000 — the lowest cap since 1980. European countries have also created stricter policies on immigration and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa.

Bercan previously worked in a conflict-prone area of the Democratic Republic of Congo and most recently served on Doctors Without Borders’ rescue ship in the Mediterranean for four months, and saw many seeking refugee in Europe or even the United States. She said while she was on the ship the U.S. starting making it harder for refugees to come to the U.S. — which made her even more concerned as she watched migrants cross the sea.

“It’s really hard to be watching the deaths and seeing the human toll,” Bercan said.

Forced From Home VR

Visitors to the Forced From Home Exhibit use virtual reality headsets to experience what migrants from around the world go through to flee their countries. | Emily McTavish/Sun-Times

The exhibit also has you pick what to bring if you were forced to flee from home. Throughout the tour, you have to give up items to either pay for the next leg of the journey or because there is no way to carry them anymore.

For Darren Curry, this part of the exhibit was especially jarring. Curry, who is originally from Chicago, recently moved back to the city after living in the Caribbean.

Curry saw first-hand the effects of a natural disaster when Hurricane Ivan, a Category-5 storm, swept through the Caribbean in 2004. The first floor of his house was flooded with 8 feet of water after the storm, he said. He had been prepared by wrapping up computers and birth certificates.

“The idea of what if we had to flee in 30 seconds, that situation really struck me,” Curry said of the exhibit.

Curry came to the exhibit with his wife and son. The last thing Curry had after going through the exhibit? Shoes. His son? A motorcycle.

“It was really uncomfortable, but I think the unfortunate thing is that we now have a desire to be provided all the comforts and shielded from those things that are uncomfortable or unpleasant or real,” Curry said.

Caffey said after the experience, he would tell his family to be “grateful for what they have right now at this moment because people in other countries are struggling right now and have no clothes, homes or anything.”