Journal From a Refugee Camp – 10 October

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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.

Tuesday, October 10th

Today was the first day using our new schedule. Instead of going from noon to 5:00 p.m., we’ll go from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00. I did my best to point out how this would cause us to open two hours late on mornings we escort patients to medical appointments (four days last week, but only three scheduled this week), but my complaints fell on deaf ears.

As if to emphasize my point, after I asked the clinic director several times over the previous days when patient XXXXX had a surgery consultation scheduled for condition YYYYY, she told me we didn’t have paperwork or appointment information for him and not to worry about it. He called me this evening and asked why I hadn’t picked him up in the morning. We opened the clinic on time, but missed a vital appointment — which is exactly the choice we’ll have a few times a week with the current hours. I was, and am, furious, but being angry won’t fix his problem. We’ll start over and bring him in as a walk in on Friday and hope the Greeks are helpful and forgiving. They won’t be.

Life goes on.

We had a new interpreter in the morning. After mentioning daily that we need an Arabic interpreter, the camp manager sent a Farsi interpreter to help with the Iranian and Afghan patients. The interpreter’s a compassionate Iranian and speaks near-perfect English. He arrived, worked for thirty minutes, and left.

“How’s the new interpreter?,” the camp manager asked me later.

“He was good for a half hour. It’s just me now.”

That’s about how volunteer interpreters work. The Arabic interpreter the camp manager sent on Monday did the same thing; we haven’t heard from him since. It’s obnoxious but I can’t blame someone for wanting to pass the time with their family or friends instead of working a stressful, unpaid job with strangers. When I poke my head outside to look for refugees to help with translation, the same people who spoke to me in English in the morning pretended not to understand English when I asked for help.

Despite the lack of interpreters, today went well. Many of today’s patients were from former French colonies and our French doctor was able to treat them easily, while I translated for the Afghan and Iranian families with ease. Most had common colds and fevers, while a few had acne and rashes. Except one. There was one condition I simply couldn’t figure out. The father mentioned it as an afterthought after I asked the second “are there any other problems?” after their child was treated for flu-like symptoms. The father told me it was unimportant (and if it were more important he would have used charades or simplified terms), but I still worry about it. Every word I stumble over stands in the way of refugees getting proper medical care, and while the father doesn’t think the term matters today, it might be vitally important for somebody tomorrow.

At the end of the shift, the Farsi interpreter from this morning came back by. We arranged for him to work Monday and Tuesday instead of me (I’ll be working Saturday and Sunday swing shifts at a medical clinic run by IsraAid at Kara Tepe refugee camp), and for both of us to work Fridays because of how hectic they become and how many appointments I’ll be escorting patients too. I know full well that I’ll still be working Mondays and Tuesdays, but it felt good to pretend I’d be working in a standard, licensed clinic at Kara Tepe over the weekends where I won’t have to choose between opening the clinic and taking patients to appointments as I do now.

Talking shop with the new interpreter gave me a bit more confidence in myself: He’s a native-born Farsi speaker but has trouble communicating with people in Dari sometimes. While I can usually tell the difference between an Afghan and Iranian based on their accents and clothes (for the women), I’ve never had trouble communicating with anyone younger than sixty from either country. The slang and slight differences between each language feel natural to me when I listen, and I intentionally speak kay-tah-bee, or “bookish,” so everybody understands me. I felt oddly proud that I was passably fluent in a language which I never formally studied.

Before I left, I gave the new interpreter the cheat sheet of Dari medical terms I had been using, then walked him through some of the Farsi/Dari differences I’ve noticed in conjunctions and a handful of common words.

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