Journal From a Refugee Camp – 26 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.

Tuesday, 26 September.

I spent last night studying two very specific and somewhat complicated medical conditions so I could escort two Afghans to the city hospital today. Farsi and Dari are getting easier and easier every day, but going into surgery consultations armed with a list of basic symptoms and body parts.

For context, Dari and Farsi (sometimes just called Persian) are dialects of Persian spoken in Afghanistan and Iran, respectively. The languages are mutually intelligible but have a handful of key differences. I learned Farsi formally, but use Dari more often now.

At 8:00, the coordinator and I sat in a car outside the main gate at Moria and found one of the two people with a surgery consultation planned. We waited twenty minutes for the other, but they didn’t show up. We reluctantly left without the other person waiting for a consultation.

We got the run around at the hospital. The receptionist told us to go to the clinic to see a nurse before making an appointment, then the nurse told us we had to be cleared by the receptionist to see anyone, then the receptionist told us we couldn’t be seen without police authorization. We harassed the receptionist until he gave us an appointment, though it’s not for two weeks.

The other Afghan waiting for a surgery consultation arrived at the hospital just before we were going to leave. They did have an appointment, so we went back to the clinic and waited. And waited. And waited. After 90 minutes of waiting we learned that the doctors hadn’t seen her because they needed an interpreter first, even though I had introduced myself as an interpreter. For most of my life I’ve either been too white, too short, or too young for things, but after a bit I convinced the doctors I spoke Farsi and we were soon in the office.

I don’t know how we did it, but we did it. We had samples taken and talked about specific symptoms, then gave directions and warnings, all in Farsi, all without a hitch. Historians will look back at that surgery consultation and forever wonder how we pulled it off.

While waiting for a ride, we sat next to a Greek man and talked about the crisis. He had previously volunteered to help refugees out but now was, to put it softly, sick of them.

“They come here and disrespect our culture. Look at the road. They throw trash everywhere. Is it hard to put it in the bin?”

“Everyone I met has been great,” I replied.

“No, look at Moria. Look at the road from Molyvos. There is trash everywhere. I am from Molyvos. Our jobs are all tourism. People used to eat at our restaurants at the beach but then watched people come in on boats and throw life jackets and trash everywhere. It made our town ugly. Tourism is down 70% since they started coming.”

“I understand, but didn’t the Greek government meet with the EU in 2015 in Molyvos and make the decision not to allow more boats to land there? (It did).”

“No. It was the citizens of Molyvos, we met and decided the boats could not come longer there.”

“But where else will they go? If they were bad they would stay in Syria. I have worked with many and have not seen any big problems.” (I lied — there were protests and large fires at Moria camp which destroyed much of the informal infrastructure and even killed a few people, though not while I was here)

“They are good people. We want to help. These people need jobs, but we need jobs too. Greece is very poor.”

He had a good point. I was surprised more people weren’t pointing out that the same EU which nearly kicked Greece out for financial mismanagement was now expecting Greece to foot the bill for the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. I reminded him that I hadn’t run into any problems while volunteering, then thankfully he left.

After leaving the hospital, we dropped off the clients at Camp Moria and headed back to our medical clinic. The camp director, a lovely black woman with blue hair from Los Angeles, was arguing with a film crew from a Swiss (or maybe Swedish) TV channel who were filming families. The TV crew arrived to hand out strollers and film the families receiving them, but didn’t have anybody sign waivers to be filmed, which made us nervous, and brought candy to give to children (potentially) so they would be on camera, which made us furious. We talked them into moving further from the clinic so they wouldn’t film vulnerable people, but they wouldn’t budge further.

After the argument I went back inside to get to work. The clinic was bustling yesterday and I had little to do, while it was nearly empty today and I translated for most of the afternoon. We switched between Farsi-speaking Iranians, Dari-speaking Afghans, Afghans who spoke closer to Farsi than to Dari, an angry person from non-Farsi speaking country who impatiently tried to speak Farsi, and an African person who spoke Portuguese. I translated for the Dari and Farsi guests well, but struggled with the person who struggled with Farsi and gave up on the Portuguese translation: Mine was rough after using two other languages more recently (How could I forget so much in three months!), it was their second language, neither of us knew many medical terms, and the person knew French. One of our doctors speaks broken French and they stumbled through the screening much more smoothly than we had in Portuguese.

Overall it was a very, very good day. There were no serious cases, but I was still able to help a lot of people while practicing Dari and learning a lot.


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