Lesvos Island, Greece – January 2016
This is part seven of a journal I’m keeping during my time working at a refugee camp in Greece. Part six, covering my first week working as an interpreter at a medical clinic, is found here.
I started this week with the same job as last week, working as a Farsi interpreter at the medical clinic at Lesvos island’s biggest refugee camp, Moria.
Today brought two of the most memorable stories of this month.
First was a young man who came in with charred and peeling skin on one hand. “It got burned in a fire,” he told me, “in Turkey a few days ago.” A doctor looked at his hand and found that there was no permanent damage, then went to get the young man vaseline and bandages.
While the doctor was away, I asked the young man how he burned his hand. “I was throwing gasoline on a bonfire,” he told me.
“Shouldn’t you pour the gasoline before starting the fire?” I asked him.
“Yes, but I wanted to throw the whole can on the top of the fire.”
I couldn’t help it. I turned my head to the side and pretended to cough while I quietly laughed, but he caught me. Learning to keep my mouth closed while swallowing a yawn has been the best employment skill I’ve learned, but I imagine that making an unavoidable laugh look like a cough would be equally useful. When I turned back around, the patient and I made eye contact and he tried to hide a smile. The secret was out. We both dropped the serious tone and laughed at what happened. His laughter grew as I explained to him that “The Spanish firefighters on the beach poured gasoline on a fire last week too. They lost control for a moment and scared everybody at the beach, and they were firefighters! At least you can pretend you didn’t know better!”
We quieted our laughter when the doctor came back. I resumed my role as a medical interpreter. A professional, stoic, interpreter. Definitely not someone that laughs at/with patients. “There is no permanent damage and your hand will get better every day. Apply plenty of vaseline, and change bandages whenever you do. Keep your hand clean. Come back here if the burning gets worse.” I shook the young man’s good hand and led him out of the clinic. I looked for him around camp later when I went for food but couldn’t find him. Something tells me we could have shared more cool stories.
The other story involved zero laughter.
A woman who was five months pregnant came in complaining of stomach pain. She had been smuggled on a raft from Turkey the night before and barely avoided hypothermia. She said that the cold hurt her stomach the previous night and she hadn’t felt her baby since getting off the raft.
We took her to a private room and nurses N and B began using an ultrasound machine on her. The first minute of the test was full of static as they applied the gel and rubbed it in with the machine. Then things went quiet. Nurse N slowly moved the machine around her stomach. N paused constantly but nothing changed. I’ve never been around an ultrasound machine and wasn’t sure what I should be listening for, but the serious faces around the bed told me that whatever I should be hearing wasn’t there. There was no static, no heartbeat, no sound. N had listened to every inch of her stomach and the machine stayed mute.
Nurses N and B exchanged nervous glances and started again.
This round was even slower. He seemed to stop every on every centimeter of her stomach. The machine stayed deafeningly silent. B waited until the woman looked away, then he looked me in the eyes and shook his head. I started thinking of how I would translate this, searching my racing mind for words. Then I saw her face. She understood. No translation would be needed. N shrugged his shoulders and kept inching across her stomach.
Then he stopped.
N hung over one spot for an extra second. The machine awoke. Thump, thump, thump, thump. A heartbeat. Everybody came alive, smiling and laughing as the woman grabbed every hand in the room and hugged us all.
I wish that she was the last case of the day. What a perfect final memory that would have been for everybody. But she wasn’t. A steady stream of sore throats and colds came throughout the day. A Dutch doctor often treated them with no or very little medicine.
Nearly everybody got medicine with the other doctors. If nothing else, paracetamol and lozenges were given out to mask discomfort. People left happy. Not with T, the Dutch doctor that morning. I tried to explain lozenges and ibuprofen as placebo and crowd control method and got through a couple of times, but still couldn’t convince him. Many mildly sick people left with no medicine.
Three of first four patients I saw today had come to the clinic yesterday but hadn’t received enough medicine for their cough or fever. I silently cursed doctor T from the day before and got to work talking about symptoms with them. They had the same symptoms that they had yesterday, only worse. Work that morning was very easy and very frustrating.
A recovering heroin addict came in during the afternoon, sweating and shaking. He told us that he needed valium to calm the pain. When I explained that we didn’t have valium at the clinic, he demanded that we give him methadone. I explained that we didn’t have methadone and stepped to the back to talk privately with the doctors. I was nervous about giving him anything. His heroin addiction and his demand for addictive drugs to treat his other addiction made me think that he would abuse anything we gave him. The doctors felt differently. Paracetamol is not habit forming and isn’t dangerous in the doses they wanted to give him. And trying to sell the same pain killer that nearly everyone at the clinic gets would be a very effective get-rich-slowly scheme. We gave him a day’s worth of over-the-counter painkillers and told him to come back the next day for more.
Today was the slowest day of the week.
One patient came into the clinic for insomnia. We diagnosed him and distributed medicine quickly, then sent him on his way. I heard yelling outside two minutes later. I stepped out to see the insomniac arguing with an Afghan man. The insomniac left his jacket outside the clinic while inside, then found that he was missing 150€.
The Afghan man had it. I never saw him with the money, but his combative stance, his smirk, and how quickly he turned his pockets inside out confirmed it to me. I knew it, the insomniac knew it, and everybody outside knew it. But we couldn’t prove it. The insomniac was much larger than the Afghan and started shoving him. I ran over and hugged him before he threw a punch, then held his arms and kept them separate as they argued. “You must call the police now if you still think he has your money, we can not do anything more here,” I repeated 20 times throughout their argument. The Afghan man then took a swing at the insomniac, though the punch didn’t land and another man hip-checked him to the ground before he could try again. I held back the insomniac and eventually led him back to the clinic and convinced him to take a nap there.
30 minutes later, a nurse jokingly reminded me of the memo we had received the day before. The subject was crowd control. More specifically, conflict management. We weren’t allowed to step in during a fight or ever touch a refugee in an aggressive manner. Being a true gentleman, I told the nurse that the clinic’s director ordered me to break up the fight.
The afternoon brought good news. S, a floor manager and my mortal enemy, had found money to buy ferry tickets for a family who was stuck at Moria. Their son had come in every day for four days with a toothache. We explained every day for four days that we didn’t have a dentist and the best we could do was give him painkillers and soap. The mother demanded stronger medicine every day for four days. To put it in medical terms, they were a gigantic pain in the ass.
Today, the day we had money for them and wanted them to come in, they never came by. S and I went to the official side of camp to look for them and quickly found the son. We waited at their tent for their mother and then brought her to the clinic. We didn’t want to mention the money around the other refugees. While the mother wasn’t around, we found the father and he told us that they already bought four tickets and just needed the money for two more. I was surprised by his honesty and instantly glad that I stuck around late this afternoon to help. We waited a while for the mother, then gave the money to the father and left. We saw the mother five minutes later and didn’t say anything about the money. I wanted the husband to be the hero, not myself, and especially not S.
This morning went quite slowly.
The afternoon was the busiest I’ve had at the clinic.
After lunch, the clinic’s director told us that a BBC crew would come by later. It was our warning to leave or stay in a side room if we weren’t comfortable around the camera.
The BBC came in and interviewed several of us while looking around the clinic. I had two short interviews that weren’t broadcast. We were explaining that it was a slow day when, as if on cue, a woman came in with an unresponsive child.
All of the doctors and nurses went to the bay to try to revive her. It was a very small bay, made for checking vital signs and not for six people to crowd around a bed. The BBC crew made things worse. A cameraman, a reporter, and an interpreter fought their way into the center of the chaos and seemed to think they had priority. This led to a gigantic pissing match between our young paramedic and their reporter. N, the paramedic, previously served in the British military and was anxious to show off to the women in the clinic. He was tasked with maintaining security and order in the clinic. Their reporter explained to us condescendingly several times that he was a doctor and that it somehow made it OK for him to be blocking the path in the bay. I couldn’t interpret for the family, so I just sat back and watched N and the reporter square off, trying not to laugh. The sheepish BBC producer next to me blushed and explained that she didn’t mean for the day to be like this.
N did a great job, “won,” and escorted the BBC crew out of the clinic.
Fifteen seconds later I was asked to interpret for the family. I explained that I only speak Farsi. The doctors then asked me to find an Arabic interpreter. I ran out of the clinic and the first interpreter I saw was the woman with the BBC crew. I explained to her that I was really sorry for N’s tone and that I respected their work, and ohbytheway we need you to come back and interpret for us, please, but the rest of your team can’t come in.
It was tough to sell. I’m not sure what I expected her answer to be.
She said yes. The unresponsive child was awake and doing fine soon after and we allowed the BBC crew back in. I see the camera crew as vultures, but I’ll always be thankful for their interpreter.
20 minutes later, myself and a nurse went up the hill to escort a woman in shock to the clinic. We brought a stretcher and four of us carried her down the hill, through the mud, to the clinic while three photographers stood in the way and shoved cameras in our faces. This is a common problem at beach rescues as well. I don’t want to be the guy to do it, but a volunteer or paramedic smashing a couple of expensive cameras should effectively get the point across: These are real people, not props for your facebook page.
Just before I was set to leave for the day, an Afghan family came in. The mother had chest pain and was worried about previous heart problems she had had. We weren’t able to handle their set of issues at the clinic and tried to send them to a clinic in town. The husband and son did not want to go to a hospital. They were worried that they would miss the ferry to Athens the next night if they were admitted. It took some work, but we were able to convince them that we would take them to a clinic that ran normal business hours and could not admit their mother overnight.
It was past my normal working hours, but the clinic in town lacked interpreters. I accompanied the family into town. And waited. 90 minutes after the woman went in for examinations, a doctor came out and explained to us that her blood tests were abnormal. She had to go to the hospital across town.
When we arrived to the hospital, all of the sections were closed except the emergency room. The husband recognized some English, forcing me to take them throughout the hospital and communicate with others without using the word “emergency.” The family was already nervous.
I spent the next two hours bouncing between the emergency room and the lobby, translating for the woman and the ER technician and then relaying the information to her family.
First came the EKG. After nervously waiting for the results, the doctor informed us that it was normal. The woman smiled hesitantly, knowing that there were several more tests.
While we waited for the results of her blood samples, the doctor probed her chest, back, and shoulders. He applied different levels of pressure at different places, then did the same while she breathed slowly, quickly, or deeply. He asked lots of questions about when she hurts and what stops the pain. After 20 minutes of questions, the doctor told us that her symptoms showed muscle pain and stress from the journey, but were not typical of heart problems.
Finally came the blood test results. “There is nothing dangerous,” said the doctor, “but when you get to your destination country you should have this rechecked. All your tests were normal. Your heart is healthy.”
The woman jumped up, hugged and kissed both of us profusely, and praised God. She did the same thing when she saw her family and the other volunteer in the lobby. Then once more when she got back to the clinic at Moria. It was a perfect ending to a long day.
Today would be my last day at work. I brought in my life jacket for everybody to sign, then tried to forget that I would probably never see any of these people again.
Today was as busy as any others. Fortunately, there were few serious cases.
A moment I might remember forever was asking a young girl what she wanted to be when she grew up. Everyone is asked this question many times throughout their life, but the context made this question different.
She had severe burns all over her hands. She had frostbite on each finger, then put her hands in a fire to warm them. The frostbite had dulled her hands so much that she didn’t feel the pain as her hands burned. Now she had lost use of two fingers.
I asked the question because the doctor needed to know if she would pick a career field that required the use of both hands.
Later in the morning, an Afghan man pulled me to the side of the room after we had given his wife painkillers. “Are you Christian?” the man whispered to me. The question took me by surprise. I stuttered to him that I was Christian. He shook my hand and told he that he was too, and would not have to hide it any more in Europe. I told him about all of the Christian churches throughout Germany and Scandinavia and their efforts to welcome migrants. Relief beamed from his smile as he left the clinic with his wife.
I spent the day trying to forget that it was my last day. I don’t do goodbyes well. I snapped some photos of Hobbes, promised everyone that I would keep in touch, and left camp with the depressing certainty in the back of my mind that these memories and friendships will fade over time.
Things changed for me after that. The medical clinic was one of the best groups I’ve ever lived around, and my feeling of accomplishment started to quickly fade. I still hadn’t found a replacement interpreter and there was no reason that I had to leave.
That wasn’t the only thing to change. At 5:00 that evening, the director of the clinic closed and locked the clinic due to threats of arrest by Greek police.
Tension between volunteers and the police had increased every day that week. Things seemed to reach a boiling point when a group of lifeguards were arrested for human smuggling after assisting a raft that was in international waters, though there were other cases as well. Several children drowned making the journey from Turkey in the days following the lifeguards’ arrest. Others died of hypothermia.
With the increased tension, I feel like I left at just the right time.
The Spanish lifeguards have since been released, though drownings and deaths due to hypothermia are becoming very common after the lifeguards’ range has been reigned in.
The medical clinic is still closed, though it should reopen as soon as renovations there are finished.
The clothing distribution tent, where I worked before joining the medical clinic, is closed indefinitely, as is much of the “unofficial” side of Camp Moria, where most volunteers work and most services are offered.
I am now working in Nairobi Kenya, editing the website and coaching football/soccer for the Mathare Foundation.
If you’re interested in Off-Track Health, the group that ran the medical clinic where I worked, please visit their site.
If you are interested in volunteering on Lesvos Island or donating to the cause, please visit their facebook group.
Thank you for reading my journals. I hope that the stories and messages reach home and brighten your outlook on the migrants fleeing from the Middle East. For my complete journal from my time on Lesvos, click here.