Journal From a Refugee Camp – 5 October

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

To protect patients’ privacy I’ve removed names, genders, nationalities, and any identifiable health conditions.

Thursday, 5 October

I didn’t have any patients to take to appointments this morning. Finally.

My plan was to take a long run and then relax for the rest of the morning. That plan was going smoothly until I scraped my leg a bit. After that I walked, not ran, to a local clinic and spent the morning there, translating for Afghans when doctors weren’t working on me. Not only did my plan of having a long run fail, but my plan of spending the morning not working failed too. When life doesn’t go your way, you can either stop and cry about how terrible things are or you can just be thankful you weren’t wearing white socks. I chose the latter path and got on with my day.


I spent the entire morning at the medical clinic in town getting my scrape taken care of. I had planned to go to the Kara Tepe refugee camp to register with IsraAid to be their weekend interpreter at the Kara Tepe medical center, but I ignored my disappointment and instead focused on how lucky I was that I bashed my shin instead of my face. Life was good.

As always, we struggled to find an Arabic interpreter this morning. As the staff and I discussed what happened to the previous day’s interpreter, a film crew came in and caught our conversation on video.

“Why didn’t M___ show up? I don’t think he’s volunteering just to help, I think it lets him feel like he’s here as a volunteer instead of here as a victim,” I asked.

“He was great yesterday. He fit in and helped out everywhere we needed. His English is almost perfect” another from the clinic chimed in.

The doctor had his own theory: “I’ll tell you what happened, he probably got the piss beat out of him for wearing glasses and didn’t come back. That’s what they did when I was a kid!”

Reliably, the film crew was only around when we were at our worst. My head was a step slow all day — probably because I ringed a few gallons of blood out of my shoelaces an hour before starting the shift — and I had trouble with some things which wouldn’t have bothered me yesterday or tomorrow. The camera man was a native Afghan and covered my shortcomings. I was grateful for this but don’t look forward to seeing myself looking dazed and stumbling over routine terms if the video is ever published. On the other hand, my interviews with CNN and BBC were never aired (I don’t exaggerate enough to get on TV with my average looks) so I’m assuming this one won’t either.

My head and leg were feeling better and I had settled into the day’s groove of translation — today featured more diabetes and less common colds than usual — when a man who had complained of arm pain collapsed on the floor. The doc and EMT crouched over him while I ran to grab a real interpreter. I’d be comfortable living in Iran or Afghanistan with my language skills and I’m comfortable translating for patients at surgery consultations, but I’m not comfortable translating for what might be a life-or-death situation. The cameraman came in and helped the man get his bearings once he came to, plus gave his friends instructions on how to look after him. For the first time, I was happy somebody came in and did my work for me.

The rest of the afternoon was a mix of diabetics and people who needed their blood pressure checked. Nothing fancy or complicated. Which was good.

After the shift, the staff got together and grabbed dinner downtown, along with a physiotherapist and an independent photographer who the doctor stumbled upon. It was the doctor’s last night at the clinic. We talked about life-changing and unimportant things simultaneously and pretended that we would all see each other again soon, possibly working together on our next vacations. Saying things like that helps keep you sane when turnover is so high.

The doc had only been with us one week, but that’s the average time for many of the medical volunteers who come here instead of taking vacations. We have an emergency fill in from another camp coming tomorrow, but we might be without a doctor for the three weeks after that (If you are or you know of a fully-certified doctor willing to volunteer even a short time, please contact me).

We should all be more worried, but things have a way of working out.

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