Journal From a Refugee Camp – 19-22 October

The OHF/DocMobile medical clinic

I’m currently volunteering as a Farsi and Dari interpreter at a medical clinic at both One Happy Family (OHF) refugee community center and the Kara Tepe refugee camp 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.

20-22 October, 2017


I had work scheduled on both Saturday and Sunday so Friday was my day off. I was still certain I would be called in.

I was called Friday morning and told that A) there was a large fight the night before between Afghans and Syrians, and B) our Iranian interpreter (who also translates for Afghans as Farsi & Dari are mutually intelligible) would be unable to make it. I was told to expect a big group of injured people to come in for wound care and pain management.

Thankfully, there was no deluge of injured people as expected. I handled some phone calls and coordination today, but otherwise relaxed and never had to leave the apartment.


Today we had a clothing handout scheduled from ten in the morning until dark. The handout had been planned for a month and we were told to expect 800 people. I told my coworkers it would be a Christmas miracle if half that many people showed up that day.

While there was a steady flow of ~50 people per hour, there certainly wasn’t 800 people. I translated for two people, both from D.R. Congo who had learned Portuguese while refugees in Angola. I translated poorly — I never learned medical terms in Portuguese and I had spent six weeks in Colombia and a month working in Farsi after leaving Brasil — so I did a piss-poor job, but their cases were simple and our EMT speaks respectable French so they were able to get the care they needed.

IMG_20171021_123426486I had a 4:00 p.m. to midnight shift coming up so I snuck in naps during the boutique when I could, using an exam table as a bed, a washcloth as a blanket, and guaze as a pillow.

At 3:30 I headed across the street to Kara Tepe camp to work a double shift as an interpreter at their medical clinic with doctors from IsraAid.

I enjoy working with IsraAid; I relate better to the medical team, I stay much busier, and the infrastructure is significantly better.

Despite what I just said, today at Kara Tepe was mostly calm. As our pediatrician says, it was snots and shots: Lots of kids with colds and fevers, not much else. I translated for around ten kids with common illnesses, plus explained how to get dental help to a handful of adults and helped set up hospital referrals for a few more complicated cases.

Overall, a quiet morning and a quiet night, though I did work 14 hours with just a quick nap in between.


Without exaggerating, despite time in Iraq, working black Friday at a department store, and working the swing shift at a mental health rehab center, today was the craziest day at work I’ve ever had.

The day started out relaxed. I walked around a castle and trails near town for two hours, then went downtown to grab some Greek pastries before work.

While downtown, I saw several familiar faces at a square in front of the sea. I also saw around 200 other faces there. The group was exclusively Afghan and Iranian, all of whom had left Moria within the last two days. They were now squatting in a concrete square in the middle of the city, with no access to free food, fresh water, or suitable bathrooms.

Each I talked to said they left Moria out of protest for it being a prison, though the unspoken reason was that the Afghan minority had got been beat up by the Arab majority in a riot at Moria a few days before, then left the camp for safety — two Afghan kids had reportedly had their skulls broken in the fight. The Afghans were now seeking refuge from their refugee camp. If there’s a hell, this is it. The mayor of Mytilini, the local head of the United Nations High Committee on Refugees, and the director of Moria stood nearby with nervous looks on their faces.

The morning was depressing, but the night was crazy.

We had patients as soon as we started at Kara Tepe. And they never stopped. We dealt with pneumonia, chickenpox, torture wounds, anxiety attacks, a pregnant woman having contractions, a screaming mother, a father calling the doctor a killer and threatening us, strangers finding a bleeding man who had passed out on the ground, three ER trips, plus the standard coughs, colds, fevers, and infections.

The first half of the shift, when the less-dangerous patients came in, were tough for me. I was exhausted from working out and exercising in the morning after working 14 hours the previous day and it showed: I struggled to conjugate verbs correctly, mixed in the occasional Spanish word, and couldn’t remember zakhme (wound), a word I use multiple times a day. I apologized to the medical team for being ineffective, but they swore it was no problem.

The second half of the shift — after we took a break to eat — featured much more difficult cases which were much easier for me to translate. My brain was working again, which was good because of the upcoming insanity. After the break we were yelled at, threatened, coughed on, and stood out in the cold waiting for an ambulance.

I got back to the apartment at one in the morning and passed out almost immediately. Thank God the weekend is over.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s