Journal From a Refugee Camp – 6 October

The OHF/DocMobile medical clinic

I’m currently volunteering as a Farsi and Dari interpreter at a medical clinic at the One Happy Family (OHF) refugee community center on Lesvos Island, Greece. 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 identifiable health conditions.

This morning was a disappointment. A roommate ate nearly all of my granola, then I got turned away at Kara Tepe refugee camp. I went there to register to volunteer as an interpreter at IsraAid’s weekend medical clinic and was told by the clinic director that she had arranged with the camp authorities for me to work there. I arrived at the front gate, passport and volunteer badge (for another organization) in hand and a message from the camp director on my phone.

“Sorry, you can’t register without your organization’s director with you in person,” the Greek guard with a perfect Australian accent told me.

I showed him messages from the clinic director but he wouldn’t budge. I’ll have to miss work Saturday night, but should get registered on Monday without any problems.

Many days at the OHF clinic have themes. Fevers, diabetes, diarrhea, anything. Patients flock to the clinic with those problems for one or two days, then we don’t see the problems again. Today’s theme was torture.

People came to us and showed us obscene scars given to them by ISIS, the Taliban, or Assad’s forces. Some had cigarette burns all over them, others had Frankenstein scars around their arms and legs, while others spasmed uncontrollably when they tried to sit still, a result of electrocution. Each had a terrible story; each had needs we couldn’t meet. We had over the counter pain medication, a physiotherapist, and an ability to set up appointments to see a doctor in town, who will then delay the appointment if given the chance. Even when we bully our way into being seen immediately — which I’ve gotten pretty good at doing — it’s no more than a consult for an operation which may not occur for months. We didn’t have any strong medication or a surgeon. With our limited resources we did our best to have everyone’s needs taken care of, but somebody with grotesque scars around their shoulders and abs who can’t raise his hands above their chest needs more than a massage.

I was happy to take ten minutes out of the session to have my dressing changed. I scraped my shin a bit the day before and am doing my best to avoid infection and keep the scar small.


After the bandage change, it was back to hell. I couldn’t translate all the terms used for torture methods and results, which at the time bothered me but I now see as a blessing. I did my best to get my mind off things for a few hours after work, but Super Metroid can only distract me so much. I don’t want to think about exactly what happened. Seeing the scars is haunting enough. A bottle of vodka and a night sleeping on the beach sound mighty good right now.

After doing our best to get treatment for the victims of torture, things lightened up: Somebody who had been nearly killed by a terrorist group came in. They had been shot through the femur a decade ago and now needed a new orthotic for one foot; that leg was nearly two inches shorter than the other and their orthotic was destroyed from walking across the Middle East in ragged shoes. While we brainstormed on how to fix the orthotic and back pain they told us about his ruptured eardrum, which the doctor had a look at and told me was far worse than ruptured. While we brainstormed how to treat that, they pulled their hair back and showed us a scalp scarred by a landmine. We wrote them referrals and set up appointments with specialists while struggling to explain why we couldn’t do more — I can barely wait to work at the official camp clinic in Kara Tepe, where I will be able to do more —  and they seemed to accept it in a resigned way.

After that, things truly did get easier. I was able to track down patients for whom we had made appointments at the hospital and arranged where and when I would pick them up, followed up with a couple who had found out that a feared serious condition was benign, and translated for some less serious cases — acne, colds, and simply asking for medications they ran out of.

I was glad to end on a good note, but good God were the lows low today. I’ve heard people talk about the need for self care on the island but I never thought I would need it. I’ve dealt with PTSD, depression, the loss of friends and loved ones, plenty of tramautic events and poor health in life, but I’ve never felt as worn down as I did this afternoon.

My evening plan to hang out with the OHF director went downhill when a riot broke out at the community center. I wasn’t there and didn’t ask for the details — I didn’t want to know anyways — so I used it as an excuse to stuff my fat face with pastries from a nearby bakery and then go to bed early.

Time to relax for a few days.

“The earth is tired of human kind and I think this world is gonna wash up in hell”

-The Aquabats!


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