Journal From a Refugee Camp – 6 – 10 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.

6-10 November


Today two new doctors from California came. They’ll stay for a month, giving us some needed stability. Naturally, their first day was the craziest day they’ll have on the island.

The two doctors (and a nurse for minor cases) treated 55 patients over their five hours, including two children who required ambulances and a third patient who I simply had to drive to the hospital. I couldn’t translate to save my life today so I was glad to run errands and help transport patients to the hospital and local clinic. Cases which are usually easy to translate — kidney stones, epilepsy, and Afghan men under 60 years old — made me stall and stutter today. I never figured out if my trouble was because I was sick, the patients had accents I’m not used to, or I was simply forgetful, but I had never had this much trouble understanding basic cases.

After the shift, a nurse and I drove to camp Moria to hand out medication we bought for one man and a tent to another. The man who needed the medication shook our hands gleefully, while the man who said he needed the tent clarified that he already had a tent but had no physical space to put it in. We talked to him about looking around, asking favors, sleeping at the unofficial camp attached to Moria, or finally just being assertive, but I don’t think any of it clicked. He’s young, alone, naive, impressionable, and will be in a world of trouble if the wolves around camp realize this before he finds a father figure.


When I checked my phone this morning I saw a video sent the night before. It was two minutes of Palestinians and Kurds throwing rocks at each other at Moria, a very peculiar racial rivalry at a camp full of racial rivalries. The biggest is the Syrians and the Afghans, which the Syrians “won” when many Afghans left camp to live in a plaza downtown after two children were allegedly seriously hurt by Syrians in a recent fight. We don’t have a Kursish interpreter and I wasn’t looking forward to work today.

The doctors told us in the morning they considered quitting after yesterday’s chaos. In an oddly lucky twist, today was much slower and more frustrating than yesterday.

We were moved to a tent today so volunteers doing renovation can further improve our clinic (including running water and reinforced windows & lockable cabinets for storing medication overnight). Like everywhere else we’ve been, we had a strict closing time to accommodate for the class which needs the tent in the evenings — their three classrooms are not enough and our organization hasn’t been assertive enough to convince the center organizer that the only medical clinic needs priority for the fourth classroom.

With the scheduling struggle came tension. There was always some tension within our organization, but today brought arguments and anger instead of simple requests — I’m not proud of yelling at our organizer over what I considered to be a major manner but the organizer believed to be unimportant, but no other way of communicating seemed to get through.

Translating today was easier than yesterday, though I still struggled with two cases. Some patients must have heard about this because in the waiting area two patients requested another interpreter. While this usually only happens when I understand a patient 100% but cannot give them the medication they want, today they requested an interpreter before I even spoke with them. One had a terrible attitude and it was a blessing in disguise not to have to deal with his big attitude over a small issue, but it was still a blow to my ego to have patients seek someone else for help — usually Afghans & Iranians all around camp and even in town want to speak Farsi with my white self the same way you might want to see a monkey juggle.


Like Monday and Tuesday, I had to wince my way through much of the morning.

First came a phone call from the medical clinic at Kara Tepe, where I work on the weekends. They wanted to know who to report potential sexual abuse to, what forms are needed, and what the protocol is. I wanted to know the same information. When I asked my coordinator about it, she told me to have the other organization ask their coordinator about that coordination issue. I didn’t bring up that we also needed to know and it would be a coordination issue as soon as we ran into it. We’d already had enough tension and arguments this week.

Today is a holiday in Greece and the police were forcing the Afghans living at the square downtown to clear the area for a parade, so we expected many of them to wind up at our community center that afternoon for a safe place to stay and at our clinic to get the medical care not available to them since their “protest” started.

They never appeared in the afternoon. Instead, the Flying Seagull Project, better known as Clowns Without Borders, stopped in.

It was most of the same people I recognized from a few years ago, plus a few newcomers and some new tricks. The children screamed and clapped and sang for the performance, while the parents looked amazed. Amazed that somebody actually cared about their families having fun. Tons of organizations here have missions to meet the most immediate needs — food, shelter, medical treatment, etc — while a handful treat less immediate needs — education, psychological treatment, things to pass the time — but very few professionals come out to offer pure, simple fun (sorry, random people coming to play volleyball or color with the kids don’t count). The parents looked amazed that today’s visitors looked at them as people who wanted to have fun instead of simply refugees who needed help.



This morning I escorted one patient to the hospital to pick up the results of a test while a nurse from our organization escorted four patients to IKA for x rays and basic consultations.

I had been working with this patient for the last month to get the right referrals and find our way around the hospital to get this test — the employees at the hospital in Mytilini are as useless as tits on a boar unless you’re Greek — and today we were finally picking up the results of the test. The patient was tense. Hidden underneath their smile was a clinched jaw and intense eyes. Their usual bouncy voice was slow and unemotional. When we were given a paper with the test results on it, I asked what they meant and the doctor told us in perfect English to ask somebody down the hall. After we found someone helpful, she said dryly that the test was fine and the patient didn’t have the condition we were worried about.

The patient’s knees buckled, they crossed theirself five times, and they nearly collapsed. The doctor had turned around and closed the door behind her before seeing the reaction. After the hospital, I went to IKA to translate for a patient waiting for an X-ray to get done. The patient had previously went in for treatment without a previous x-ray, drawing the ire of everyone there and making us apologize profusely. Today the patient had their x-ray and was treated quickly and easily. I stayed around for another 45 minutes to translate for a handful of Afghans and Iranians while simultaneously scoring brownie points for our organization with all the doctors at IKA.

After translating for the last Afghan patients at IKA, I went to the OHF clinic. Today we were inside the camp’s main building. The school asked that we not use the tent today and none of us grabbed our balls and argued on our behalf. Instead, we dealt with cigarette smoke and lots of noise throughout the day, then the music and clapping from a dance party in the afternoon. Our seven-foot plywood barrier did little for the noise or tobacco.

I got in another argument with our director in the afternoon about our schedule and our relationship with the OHF leadership, though I didn’t yell this time. The argument ended when the director told me that when I’m the director of things I’ll realize it’s not easy — I’ve directed things and haven’t got pushed around without a fight like this — and I decided keeping my mouth shut was the best option.

Someone from the clinic quit today due to a personality conflict (not involving me), but myself and another volunteer promised to talk to the other person and convinced the volunteer to stick around another day to see if things improve.

Before the clinic ended, I escorted a punk to IKA. The punk had a bad cut, but refused to let doctors clean it because of the pain, then refused any kind of pain killer on principle. The patient talked to the doctors, three times his age, like they were children and demanded the doctors stitch it up before doing an x-ray or fully cleaning it. The patient argued, complained, and insulted everyone, at which point they called the hospital and told him to go there instead.

Along the way to the hospital, the patient lied to me at least four times about the cause of the cut, then bragged about how well they knew their way around the hospital and how easy their condition was to treat. The patient offered me “better” ways to go to the place I go to three times a week, all of which went down roads overrun with foot traffic during the day, and was upset when I didn’t park in the employee lot at the hospital.

“Well, here we are. Go through the door near the first entrance we passed and you’ll be at the radiology lab.”

“Are you not coming with me?”

“You said you knew it here. You don’t need my help.”

“Just come for five minutes.”

I did. I made sure the patient got to the right place, made sure the doctor knew what had happened, then gave the patient one euro to get a bus back to his camp.

I found out the next day the patient declined to get stitches or an x-ray done and still doesn’t know the extent of their injury.


Today is my day off. Almost. Like other days off, I ran an errand for the organization in the morning, but this time it was a quick errand and it was otherwise free.

I spent the day writing, exercising, washing clothes, and otherwise trying to relax after a terrible week where I had trouble keeping my temper under control. The clowns were the only thing that kept me sane this week.

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