Journal From a Refugee Camp – 27-29 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.

27-29 October, 2017


Friday was my free day. Instead of work, I got up early to pick up a new nurse from the ferry dock. She would work for us for a few weeks, and more importantly, pay me the rest of the money our organization owes me for putting the rental car on my credit card.

Putting the car on my credit card may become the worst decision of my short but decision-havocked life. I scraped the car while trying to drive between two parked cars in a narrow alley (When in Rome…), then somebody backed into me, another person on the insurance scraped the car on a wall in another alley, and we find a few new scratches or scrapes every week due to parking in an alley — there’s usually no other parking within a ten-minute walk. I’ll turn the car in on Tuesday and hope to God that the extra insurance we paid for covers the damage, which it legally should, but as a foreigner it’s never a safe bet that I’ll get the benefit of the doubt from the police.

IMG_20171027_203420872I went downtown for my free afternoon. Many of the Afghans and Iranians who fled Moria after being attacked by Syrians still lived in a square near the bay, so I spent some time catching up with them. They had been there for a full week, sleeping on cold concrete every night. There was no access to free food, so some maintained their dignity by claiming to be on hunger strikes, while others survived off of croissants and day-old bread from a nearby bakery. Similar to their hunger strike, most claimed to be there to protest living conditions at Moria instead of saying that they left after a group of Syrians beat them in a rock fight.

Despite the cold, lack of food and water, and uncertainty in their lives, they seemed happy. They sang, some danced, and they roasted every newcomer to the group as an unofficial part of initiation.

At around midnight I got a call from a patient I had escorted to the emergency room a few days ago for a potential heart attack. He told me he was having chest pain again and the new medications weren’t helping. I told him I wasn’t a doctor, couldn’t help over the phone, and he had to see the doctors at his camp’s health clinic. He called me a short time later and told me the doctors turned him away. I explained again that I am only an interpreter, then gave him the emergency and ambulance phone numbers and ordered him to call them.

Apparently he made it through the night — I saw him smoking a cigarette outside of camp on Monday.


My ringing phone woke me up again this morning.

A boat arrived in the middle of the night and an organization from the north of the island needed me to translate symptoms and directions for a pregnant woman who had just arrived. The words were easy; the conversation was difficult. I knew all of the vocab and contextual information but it’s difficult to understand a panicked, hyperventilating pregnant woman with potential hypothermia over a bad cell connection.

I worked from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the health clinic at OHF. The clinic was very busy for a Saturday, with tons of Farsi & Dari speaking patients. The cases were easy, the patients spoke clearly, and I was on a roll. It was probably the best shift I’ve had on the island.

Then I went to Kara Tepe.

We had a new doctor at KT and before telling me her name she explained that myself and A (an Arabic interpreter & psychiatrist) would have to wait outside until we were with patients because there isn’t room in the clinic for both of us. I told her I’d do it, but as soon as got cold I’d be indoors, either at my apartment or the clinic.

My first two cases that night were tough. One was a patient who needed psychiatric help and used terms and tones of voice I couldn’t understand, while another was an older woman from Kabul who I simply could not understand — I can barely understand Kabulis — and was belligerent. After finishing their treatment, I camped out in the office and didn’t leave for the rest of the night.

The rest of the cases were easier. The patients at Kara Tepe often have more serious illnesses than those at OHF but none of the translations are significantly tougher. The terms were easy and the patients were pleasant, but this was our doctor’s first day working with refugees and it showed.

After the clinic closed, S (the nurse from Kara Tepe), A and I went to a bar to wind down. The doctor went straight home. I left the bar early because I was feeling light-headed and somewhat disoriented.


I woke up at 7:30 and felt terrible. I promised myself I would rest and sleep until my afternoon shift started. It was a great plan until my roommate asked me if I wanted to go hiking.

An hour later we were on the way to Agiossis, a small town near the base of Mount Olympus (but not that Mount Olympus), where asked a woman for directions to the mountain. She told me she recognized me from the hospital and I hoped to God it was from when I went for myself instead of when I went and argued with doctors and receptionists because I couldn’t get our patients seen. She had known me from being at the hospital with patients, but she worked in the ER and only knew me from translating for a man with a heart condition. We lucked out. She helped us get directions and we were soon following switchbacks up Mount Olympus, where we could see several towns, open sea from three sides of the island, and a long glimpse of Turkey in the background. I won’t write much more here because A) this entry is already long, and B) I’ll probably write up the town and the mountain as its own blog post soon-ish.


After the hike, I went straight to Kara Tepe. The shift started with me arriving an hour late, then only got worse throughout the night.

The doctor again told me there wasn’t enough room for both interpreters to be in the office at the same time, and I again told her I wouldn’t wait outside if it got cold. She was more sympathetic today and agreed to let A and myself wait in the exam room when not translating.

Today’s theme at the clinic was frustration. Two frustrated patients asked for a new interpreter when I didn’t give them what they wanted, even though I repeated to them exactly what they said and explained calmly that we couldn’t offer the specific help they were looking for. Other clients were frustrated due to long wait times outside, due mostly to an overcrowded camp and underfunded health clinic, but also because the doctor wanted to do thirty-minute checkups on adults who had bruised wrists and came daily for ibuprofen and a new bandage. Others were frustrated because of the doctor’s interview style: After I asked patients what was wrong, she demanded I ask them instead “Why did you come here today?”; if a parent ever said that a child had pain in her chest/arm/head or anywhere else, she demanded I ask how a parent would know if their kid is hurt; if a patient gave me a detailed answer to a short question, she cut them short, etc. I winced and took a sympathetic approach to speaking with them but they understood the doctor’s body language. Many needed validation more than they needed a bandaid or throat lozenge, but it will be a battle to give them the proper attention with the current staff. The doctor is a medical genius, but has two days of experience here and struggled to offer a calming presence or at least a friendly one.

The most common frustration was an unavoidable one: we didn’t have the medicine everyone needed. Many patients were written prescriptions but had no money to buy drugs or baby formula, so they came to us and plead for medication. We gave it to them when we had it. We usually didn’t have it though. Most were dejected but understanding, some were not: “Fight me!” asked one father after we told him that we didn’t have the medication his son needed. Others peaked in at our drug shelf and said we were lying to them when they saw drugs which looked like the ones they wanted (such as demanding dissolvable vitamin c tablets when they saw a tube with glucose tablets). It was a stressful night.

Five hours into the shift my brain stopped working. It began by mixing in Spanish words with Dari patients but progressed to the point where I couldn’t remember common English words (laundry detergent, chickenpox) while translating from the patients to the doctor. I left early. I was barely helpful at the clinic and didn’t want to have another seizure and become a patient myself.




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