Journal From a Refugee Camp – 11-12 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.

11-12 November


I started the day off by checking my leg for infection, then washing it and dressing it. So far, so good with the tattoo I got last night. I don’t want to cover up the large, grotesque scar on my chin, but I do want to own it, to have it be fun instead of something I’m supposed to hide.

After a relaxing morning, I walked to Kara Tepe. This is my last weekend translating at the medical clinic there, which disappoints me, and also my last day with a difficult doctor, which excites me. I was also disappointed to see our Arabic interpreter, but for other reasons: She was supposed to get approval to leave the island and join family elsewhere in Europe, and her being here means it was delayed and she’ll still be stuck in a refugee camp for a while.

Translating was easy today. Most came with fevers or colds, but a handful came with complicated cases which I was surprised not to struggle with — after two months, I still learn new words everyday (today’s were abscess and heart palpitations). The day before I leave the island I’ll probably learn to translate for all of the psychiatric and neurological cases we have — there is no psychiatrist or neurologist on the island so we often get repeat patients who are desperate for help — but every day as things get easier I realize I’m one day closer to no longer needing any of this.

Today’s cases weren’t particularly bad, but we still recommended a few patients to the hospital. One was sent back within minutes of arriving, while two refused to go. I translated as the doctor told them how dangerous their conditions were and explained to them how to write and sign a waiver of liability. Then we waited to see them again. None of them came back, which was good, right? It means they got better. Or was it bad because they just sat in their room and were too weak or afraid to come? Who knows?

The night ended fittingly with a trip to IKA, the urgent care clinic in town. I escorted the doctor and nurse there with another patient with what we thought was a serious illness, then left. I wasn’t remotely surprised to see the medical team who did my stitches there — they’re often there when I take patients to IKA during the week for translation, to the point where I think they see me more than they see their own families.

After showing the doctor how IKA works, I walked to my apartment nearby. I got back at 1:00 a.m.


The first thing we did today was check on the patients who were recommended for the hospital yesterday. The one who went to the hospital was told she was fine and sent back. The one we escorted to IKA ended up being fine. One man we recommended go to the hospital came back and, upon reexamination, discovered that his condition wasn’t as bad as we had told him it was. We couldn’t fine the last patient we recommended go to the hospital.

This continued a trend over the last few weeks, where we sent more patients to the hospital than any other medical team I’ve worked with on the island and also had more patients sent back than any other team I’ve worked with on the island. The one patient who did have a condition which needed hospitalization was one we told to take Ibuprofen and come back in two hours if their condition didn’t get better. Our doc didn’t have the best judgment.

Luckily, we had a new doctor today. She was quicker with patients and had a better rapport, though she was less thorough doing checkups with adults who have basic fever or cold symptoms which may become problematic. The waiting room was never overcrowded today and patients were never angry. On a personal side, she never asked myself or the other interpreter to wait outside or go in the other room so she could have more space. The atmosphere in the clinic was worlds better than it had been the previous weeks.

Despite ending earlier today and having more down time in the clinic, we actually saw more patients today. Some were more complicated than what we had dealt with before (and before I had translated for inguinal hernias, heart attacks, torture, varicoceles, epilepsy, and a few obscure conditions) but everything was easy to translate for today. On my last day at Kara Tepe, everything clicked. I was on a roll.

I had a surprisingly unemotional goodbye at the end of the shift. I had only worked with the doctor for a day and the nurse & Arabic interpreter for two weekends, but I still felt a bond. I’ve learned to ignore the travel fact that I’ll almost certainly never see any of these people again. It makes goodbyes easier.

I got back at 12:30 a.m. and immediately went to sleep. I needed to be on the road at 7:30 to help a patient with a surgery consultation.





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