Journal From a Refugee Camp – 22 September

I’m currently volunteering as a Farsi interpreter at a medical clinic at the One Happy Family community center on Lesvos Island. In 2015 I volunteered as general labor and later an interpreter at Camps Pikpa and Moria and shared those stories here.

Friday, 22 September.

I woke up at 7:00 and did a last-minute study session on inguinal hernias, both in English and in Farsi. I would translate for a surgery consultation at 8:00 and needed to A) Learn what an inguinal hernia is and the basic procedures to treat it, and B) How to translate and explain all of this in Farsi. I took a wrong turn walking to the medical clinic and got there after the doctor had seen the patient, but I still needed to translate what the doctor had said to do for treatment and preparation for a potential operation next Tuesday, plus explain the bare basics of what had happened. I still don’t know how I did it but I explained things far beyond my fluency level.


The director of our medical program dropped me off at Camp Pikpa after finishing the appointment. I volunteered at Pikpa for a few weeks in 2015 and was anxious to see familiar faces and places. I arrived at 9:30 to an empty camp. I poked around and looked at the art and projects we had done. Many of them had fallen by the wayside, but new murals and a new playground were far better than anything we built while I was there. The camp looked more ordered, nicer, but best of all, more positive than it had been while I was there.

After I was there five minutes a nurse came out to greet me. We traded names and stories but only knew one person in common — Demitra, a grumpy Greek nurse who held the camp together.

I left when kids started to run around camp without their parents. It was 10:00 and the only staff member up yet was sitting in a lawn chair yawning while smoking a cigarette. While the camp had changed, Greece had stayed exactly the same.

We opened the clinic at One Happy Family community center at noon. We had a new doctor today, but she would only be there one week. A friend of hers will come and give us two doctors for the next week, but we currently have zero nurses — the two who were here when I arrived stayed one week before going back to London. Volunteering for one to two weeks at a time seems to be the standard and gives us what should be an unsustainably high turnover rate, but things have a way of working out.

The afternoon translating at the medical clinic was boring until 4:00. Before that, I translated for just one person. After that, I translated for five or six, plus had to escort someone to a quiet and isolated part of camp so I could look at something they didn’t want the rest of the clinic to see–we don’t even have a shower curtain to separate the doctor’s corner from the rest of the clinic. An hour later I dealt with someone missing teeth yelling at me to get them stronger medication. When I explained that we didn’t have prescription medications and weren’t a dental clinic, they just yelled louder.

Beyond those two cases translation was routine today. Colds, coughs, and headaches. I teamed up with an Iraqi man who became our Arabic translator for the day, then traded stories with him during quiet moments. He translated for U.S. forces in Iraq for seven years and carried his challenge coins and certificates with him, hoping these would help him get asylum. We served across the Tigris from each other and knew the same names and places. He served the U.S. Army for seven years and was now living in a shack with six people, hoping to get asylum in Europe. I was furious but couldn’t show it while at the clinic.

To lighten the mood, he plead and plead for us to get him a new place to stay: He shared the shack with his in-laws. He was willing to move camps, live in a tent, work for free, or do anything, he just wanted away from his mother-in-law. We knew he couldn’t be helped but we still referred him to the people who run Kara Tepe, another camp on the island.

As the clinic closed I saw a few Iranians I had met the day before. One reminded me that he loved me but hated my country.

“Most of us are awesome,” I told him.

“I hate America.”

“We’re not all bad.”

“I hate America.”

“I’m a cool motherf—er and I’m just one person. There are tons of us.”

“I like you. I hate your government.”

That was good enough for me. He hated the U.S. because Brazilian-Iranian son was denied residency due to his Iranian citizenship, which also caused his Brazilian mother and Iranian father to be denied residency. I couldn’t quite do the puzzle in my head of what connection any of them had to the U.S. or why he wanted residency in a country he hated, but I didn’t want to further prod him. We dropped the stalemate and spoke in Portuguese for a minute to the surprise of onlookers.

I told him and a few other Iranians that I was Shay-toon-ay Koocheck, or Little Devil, which they seemed to enjoy. The Ayatollah and some Iranian leaders call the United States Shay-toon-ay Bozorh, or Great Devil. We shared a laugh and they invited me to work out with them at the community center’s gym and have tea, but I had to get going. I was trying to meet with the woman who organizes the English classes there.

She was nowhere to be seen, so I left. I was disappointed to delay teaching further (Quick background — I have a few years of professional teaching experience, an MA in Education, and CELTA certification) but I know she’ll be there next week.

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