Journal From a Refugee Camp – 29 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, 29 September.

I stayed up late last night studying surgical terms for a select few major organs and systems, then woke up early today to put it to use. I grabbed a quick protein shake and practiced the new vocab one last time and then headed to Moria, the island’s largest refugee camp, to pick up a patient and escort them and their family to a local clinic for a surgery consultation.

After waiting an hour, the doctor refused to see us. I explained the medical problem to the nurses there, who told us my patient needed to go to the hospital to have a consultation on that specific issue. I had been to the hospital with another patient earlier in the week, where they said he needed a referral from a small clinic to make an appointment. The camp clinic at Moria is unable to see patients with serious conditions.

Somewhere in this circle you’ll usually find a crack: a confused doctor, a sympathetic nurse, or a receptionist who can be either sweet talked or coerced into making an exception. There was no crack in the circle today. We’ll be at the main hospital Tuesday morning, being told they can’t accept patients without referrals while trying to find someone who can be convinced otherwise.


Last night was the last night for one of our British doctors, while today is the last day for the other. They were both incredible as doctors and as crisis managers, but like the two short-term nurses before them (and those before them, etc. for two years), they’ll be replaced. I can’t imagine the next people through the door will do a better job, but with an organization offering zero pay and minimal subsidies you take what you can get and hope for miracles.

Today was possibly the busiest day at the medical clinic since I’ve been there. It was also the least busy I’ve personally been since I arrived. I translated for no more than five Farsi or Dari speakers and for no more than 20 total minutes, spending the rest of the time triaging patients in Arabic, searching the camp for Arabic translators, running errands, and doing crowd control. It was more stressful than translating, though my head felt much less tired. Farsi and Dari are my fourth and fifth strongest languages, so even a four-hour shift translating in them feels like an eight-hour work day.

We left thirty minutes early today so we could drop off our departing doctor and pick up a new one from the airport, but with only one doctor and no steady interpreter, trying to close the clinic early was chaos. We accepted urgent cases but had to turn away other suffering people who we would normally see, something which always makes you feel a little less human.


When we finished closing the clinic and the day felt like it was up, I got to driving. I am the clinic’s driver now, meaning I have all of my current responsibilities as well as being the chauffeur anytime one of us needs to be anywhere. On the other hand, I have a car to explore the hot springs, waterfall, coastline, castles, olive grove, and petrified forest of Lesvos Island every weekend. I’ll call it a fair trade.

After dropping everybody off and going to the airport to pick up the new doctor (who rented a car and didn’t need a ride anyways), I finally headed back to the apartment. I arrived at 7:00, eleven hours after the work day had started.

I kicked off my shoes and got a quick workout in (travel tip: a quality set of resistance bands with a door plug is worth its weight in gold), then sat down to eat and relax. An hour later I realized it was Friday night on an exotic island and I was sitting on my couch wearing sweats.

I went out and walked to the bay, then realized I couldn’t focus and my feet felt weightless. I wasn’t having auras yet, but I could sense my seizure triggers. I went back to the apartment, ate, and I’ll go to bed in five minutes. I need to rest: Tomorrow I’ll go to a staff meeting at a camp and try to convince somebody that I need their interpreter more than they do, plus work on learning the Arabic terms necessary for triaging patients, then renew a car rental and try to convince the employee that the undercarriage damage was already there.

Time to sleep.

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