I saw kids running over the sewage, besides towers of garbage, in worn out flip-flops. I looked at my feet, and instantly felt grateful.
In the winter of 2019-2020, I spent 3 weeks in Lesbos where I volunteered in the Moria camp for an NGO called Kitrinos Health Care. It was a rather spontaneous decision made at a time when the streets of my hometown, Thessaloniki, had overflooded with numerous refugees seeking shelter in every corner, each person a quick reminder of the migrant crisis reaching out and knocking on our front doors.
I was told that entering the camp for the very first time could be quite overwhelming. As we reached the front gate, I saw kids running over the sewage, besides towers of garbage, in worn out flip-flops. I looked at my feet, and instantly felt grateful.
We made our way towards the clinic. A small clinic based within the Moria camp. A tiny office/storage room/pharmacy and a maximum of 6-7 examination rooms, some of them placed outdoors, crafted by former volunteers. Although with limited resources, Abdul Hadi, the Syrian co-ordinator, along with all medical and non-medical volunteers, work tirelessly and manage to run the clinic like a well-oiled machine.
With the number of arrivals increased by 88% compared with 2018, the camp’s population is now close to 21,000 most of them arriving from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo and other violence-afflicted countries. The barbed wire fences surrounding the main camp have been torn down and people have spread all over the nearby olive groves and mountains. Enduring poor sanitation, ice-cold water, and mud covering their bodies, they struggle to craft their ‘homes’ in hope of avoiding the rain, wind and cold. The less fortunate live in the so called ’Jungle’. The name does justice to the situation. There aren’t any toilets or showers, neither a decent place to sleep. An utterly repulsive image for the 21st century.
Persecution, conflict, violence, has forcibly displaced millions. In a moment of terror and desperation, the threat to survival summons a ‘’fight or flight’’ response. The stories are true. I’ve heard them myself. Minors threatened at gunpoint. Murdered parents. Cities turned into warzones in days. A boy of my age forced to kill. Men, women, children, elderly crossing borders and paying smugglers for a boat ticket that promises nothing but hope. Through an NGO (Aegean Boat Report) we learn about those who don’t make it to the shore. Some go missing, some are found drowned and others get arrested by the Turkish Coast Guard or the Turkish Police.
In the mornings, I watched the new arrivals stepping off the bus and into the camp. They are now trapped on this island. Their curse isn’t over…it won’t be for a long time.
They left a hell behind, just to find another one. Soon they will find out for themselves.
Between triage, organizing the drug supplies, preparing prescriptions, and helping in wound care, I consulted patients alongside exceptional physicians. Amongst common illnesses like diarrhea, skin, and respiratory infections, what struck me the most were the cases of mental disorders such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, and trauma.
He is 21 years old. He arrived with a knife laceration on his neck. We asked how it happened and he turned his head away. ‘’He has been living in the Jungle alone, with no family left,’’ the interpreter said.
The cases of patients with thoughts of suicide and inflicting self-harm are countless. Amongst them, there are unaccompanied minors who have now reached the 42% of the camp’s population.
She is 19 years old. She took an unknown quantity of pills desperate to end her life. I turned and looked at her. Eyes wide open, pointing to the right corner of the room behind David’s chair (a GP from Arizona). Hands tied together resting on her legs. She seemed empty and desperate. Frightened by the thought, I immediately look away.
Our shift was from 9 AM to 4 PM. We struggled to maintain a fast pace. They would wait in line for hours.
She is 16 years old. She came along with her 23-year-old husband, six months pregnant, with a previous miscarriage, suffering from abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. She said she couldn’t feel the baby moving. Blood pressure was good, although she was in pain and looked pale. We acted fast. Palpated her abdomen, ultrasound on the bump searching for the fetus’s heartbeat. And there it was! A strong rhythmic heartbeat. I took her hand, ‘’You don’t need to worry…your baby’s alive’’. She burst into tears. A translation was unnecessary. Our expressions said it all...We sent her to the hospital for what seemed like possible premature delivery. I informed Abdul Hadi and the ambulance was on its way.
He is a 35 years old African male. “He’s been dreaming of his dead little brother and the night they were being chased in the jungle, back in Africa,’’ the French interpreter said. The late night fights and noises in the camp scare him. Nightmares haunt him. Awakened by his own screaming, he finds himself hallucinating in the middle of the night. I immediately noticed he was anxious, clearly disoriented, and panicked, his eyes red and swollen. Clearly, he hadn’t slept in days. ‘’What can we do for you today?’’ I asked. He said he would like a pill to go to sleep or something to help him relax. I looked at David. Same look on our faces. We both knew we were about to disappoint him, amongst hundreds of others who were battling with mental health problems. According to a regulation of the Greek Government, we were unable to prescribe medications for mental health problems. We gave him some paracetamol for the headaches and off he went back to his personal hell.
Every Saturday a pediatric shift took place. First thing in the morning, we would all gather for a meeting. In one of these meetings, Abdul Hadi had announced the date and the latest measures about to be implemented by the Greek Government, following their recent statement on deporting 10,000 migrants by the end of 2020. A few moments of complete silence had followed his announcement. Reflecting the fear that refugees, too, will be caught up in the net, “I’ll probably be one of them,’’ a refugee interpreter said, in a rather humorous way. His tone sounded surreal. Frozen from his reaction, we all remained silent.
Between fevers and coughs, wheezing respiratory sounds and diarrhea, kids also suffered from severe rashes. Spread all over their bodies, grey scaly lines forming the diagnostic burrows of scabies. No treatment protocol could be delivered under this level of unsanitary conditions. Instead of washing machines families were advised to seal their clothes in plastic bags for 5 to 7 days. But they didn’t have a second set of clothes. Disturbed by the thought, we felt powerless.
Every day felt the same. Hundreds of cases and relapsed conditions. By the end of the year I started recognizing patients! Another sign of deterioration.
I left the island possessed by a sense of uncertainty and rage. And although no silver lining has yet to appear with the promise of a remedy for this inhumane suffering, I feel obligated to encourage all people to contribute to this sacred cause and help in this endeavor to alleviate this degenerating burden resting upon human race.
Donations can be made at www.kitrinoshealthcare.org