Journal From a Refugee Camp – 3 – 5 November

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.

3 – 5 November


Today was my day off. I left yesterday’s shift an hour early after having trouble reading in English and conjugating Farsi verbs. I didn’t think a seizure was coming, but my brain was misfiring and I couldn’t work myself as hard as I had been.

I vowed not to do anything today. I did, of course, but not much. In the morning I went on a run over the largest hill in town, by an ancient theater and graveyard near it, and down the highway on the other side. The trip up is steep and unforgiving, but the trip back is full of breathtaking views and enough of a downhill slant to feel like I’ve taken flight. The run seemed long but I was back 30 minutes after I left.

After that, I slept. Then I woke up, ate, watched Stranger Things 2, and slept again.

In the afternoon I made a few phone calls to patients to confirm appointment times and translate instructions, but otherwise did no work. It was perfect.


Back to work.

I relaxed in the morning, watching Netflix and exercising before catching a quick nap. At 3:30 p.m. I walked to work for the 4:00 to midnight shift.

Today’s shift was infinitely better than last week. Our doctor, who everyone from the organization calls impossible to work with, was relaxed today. She was more patient, less sarcastic (a trait I love outside of work, but find condescending in this context), and didn’t ask any staff to sit outside.

I asked the organization’s director if she had talked to the doctor during the week and she smiled for a minute, then explained that she spent a day talking to the doctor about being the common denominator in all personnel clashes and morale nosedives. Another person from the organization asked me later, unprompted, if the doctor had a better demeanor this weekend.

Even with an improved doctor and a great clinic, we had more patients than we had time. Patients sat in the waiting room for one to two hours waiting their turn to be seen, some with serious conditions and others with splinters they wanted removed. No matter the condition, everyone waited.

Then one person didn’t wait. They skipped the line and came into the clinic, yelling that if they needed an emergency to be seen that their condition was an emergency. The condition was a completely normal one, one which could be handled with $3 and a five-minute trip to a pharmacy, but the patient had no money or transportation to a pharmacy so instead they had to wait. The patient yelled for several minutes until security showed up and the patient left on their own. The patient wasn’t yelling about being sick. Their complaint was about being sick, but their outburst was about dignity. The patient had been comfortably middle class in their country; now they have to wait two hours to ask for $3 of medical supplies for a condition that nobody on earth would need to see a doctor for. The patient has been reduced to a beggar. The tantrum was never about ibuprofen.

Another patient had a similar problem. They waited like everyone else, then asked for tweezers and a needle to remove something small. We couldn’t allow them to do “self-surgery” in our clinic and didn’t have tweezers or a needle to give them. The patient was a good sport, but left instead of allowing the doctor to pull the object out. They valued their dignity over pulling a splinter out.

As we often do, we treated serious cases and asked them to come by in two hours if the condition doesn’t improve. Most have no problems, but others tip toe the line between urgent care and the emergency room — things like flus, cracked bones, mild bleeding. We had no transportation to urgent care. There are only two ambulances on the island and the hospital is 30 minutes away by ambulance so the hospital and camp staff are very picky about who gets an ambulance and who doesn’t. Eventually we found someone heading to town and sent one of our patients with him. It was an hour later than we had hoped but we didn’t have any other options.

I ignored my sore throat and runny nose and finished the shift today. All in all, it was a good shift. No emergencies and no problems translating.


The sore throat and runny nose were back today and I called in sick. The medical team found an Afghan man from camp who spoke competent English and was willing to fill in.

IMG_20171105_185312757I went walking downtown tonight to clear my mind and saw that there are still around thirty Afghans sleeping in the main square. They left camp Moria after several children were hurt in a rock fight with Syrians, who outnumber them three to one. They claimed to leave out of protest but when you talked to them it was clear they left for their safety.

Now, they were on a hunger strike. I wondered how much of it was a strike and how much they were pretending to be on strike due to not having access to free food. That question was answered when a volunteer brought a few trays of food to the square and the hunger strikers swarmed them like ravenous wolves.


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