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.
Today marks the first day of my last week on the island. Naturally, now that I know what I’m doing and am fully capable in all aspects of the job, we have a bigger staff than ever and I’m unneeded for much of the time. We have two GP doctors, one pediatrician, an ER nurse, another nurse, a coordinator/triage specialist with nursing experience, an Arabic translator from Iraq, a Dari & Farsi translator from Iran, and an EMT. We’ve come a long way since it was me, the coordinator, and one doctor.
We started off the morning in a cafe with the whole medical team, discussing what medications we can give out, what referrals we can make (there is a two-month wait list for people who want to see a psychologist unless they’ve been recently raped or tortured, there isn’t a psychiatrist, dentist, audiologist on the island, etc.), the reality of sending patients to the hospital (they likely won’t be seen within a month without one of us escorting or advocating for them) and writing prescriptions (they can’t afford them at a pharmacy and they won’t be provided at their camp), and the procedures for sending patients to the town’s urgent care clinic.
Since I’m not translating as often anymore, I did a hodgepodge of work today. I translated for a handful of patients, two of whom didn’t get the medication they wanted and then asked for another interpreter, which is the standard when we don’t have or can’t give the medication people ask for. I also went through camp to track down an Arabic interpreter, ran by our apartment to grab a backpack, then later drove to the city to pick up our regular interpreter. I was busy for much of the shift but ultimately did nothing particularly important.
The beginning and end of the shift were easy, but the middle brought out my temper. We track each patient by giving them a number when we triage them. This helps them know when their turn is and us know what the wait times will be and what the doctors’ workloads are. At 2:30, 90 minutes before we were set to close, a triage nurse told me to turn patients away. The patient I was talking to at that moment had come back to the clinic to get an infection checked on after taking antibiotic medicine for three days, exactly as we told him to do. I told him that the doctors were busy but would see him soon, which upset the triage nurse who insisted I tell him we may not be able to see him today. Explaining to her that he came 1) because we told him to, 2) because he has an infection which needs to be checked on, and 3) because it was only 2:30 didn’t seem to work, so I gave up on convincing her and explained to the patient that he may not be seen today — it hurt my brain to tell him that, but we never argue in front of patients. After him we turned all patients away. We saw him at 3:00 and were done at 3:30, meaning we turned patients away even though we had multiple doctors who sat with nothing to do for the last 30 minutes. On the positive side, I’ve learned to control my temper.
Today we were back in the clinic building. The clinic was originally one large room with a dirt floor and holey walls, but the building has since been winterized, giving us a wood floor, insulated walls, three offices, a waiting area, electric outlets, and a lockable cabinet for medicine. The only thing remaining from the original structure is the front door.
With two interpreters in the clinic today, I became available for errands. This included a quick trip to the pharmacy, then a trip to the emergency room with a screaming child.
I was told to take the child to the ER, so I brought mom and baby to the car quickly and was eager to leave. Mom called dad, who took five minutes to finish a cigarette, say goodbye to friends, and find another friend to watch their stroller while they were gone. I was impatient and the screaming baby made it worse. When I saw the relaxed looks on mom and dad’s faces, I was able to relax myself. The rest of the drive to the hospital was more peaceful.
The family spoke Arabic, so as soon as I entered the hospital I went to find the interpreter desk — which isn’t visible from any of the hospital entrances and is nowhere near where patients go for appointments — and was told by everyone there to go to the pediatrics unit. I ignored them and took the family to the ER as I was told to do, then flagged down an interpreter there. The interpreters at the desk looked upset at me, but I’m leaving tomorrow so I no longer have to be on their good side.
After work, I grabbed dinner with a handful of other volunteers — the IsraAid director, a nurse from DocMobile, three interpreters, and the volunteer director from camp who I had agreed on hanging out with several times over the previous two months, only to realize we were either too busy or too tired when the other had a free night.
Halfway through dinner it dawned on me that this would be the last time I saw these people again. I pushed that thought out of my mind and just enjoyed their company. I’ll have plenty of time to think about it later.
For my final day on the island, we were moved back into the tent. It was a fitting end.
Our Farsi & Dari interpreter had a job interview today, meaning I would handle all Afghan and Iranian patients. Our Arabic interpreter also prior commitments for the first half of the shift. My last day promised to be interesting.
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, there were few Farsi or Dari speakers during the clinics early hours. We were overrun by Iraqis and Syrians instead—I found one interpreter, a woman who works at the children’s space and is always willing to help us—but one interpreter for three doctors wasn’t enough.
Then A— came. A— was a man I had escorted to the hospital several times to help advocate and translate for him at surgery consultations. He also spoke Farsi, Arabic, and Kurdish. We could now handle any patient, with the doctor asking me questions in English, me asking A— the question in Farsi, then A— asking the question in Arabic or Kurdish. After A— asked the question, the process went in reverse. It was an unusual, slow, and oddly fun way of handling the language barrier. And it worked better than it should have.
Things picked up in the afternoon and I rarely had more than two minutes to relax, instead bouncing between doctors and often translating for two doctors at the same time. It was good though: I got to make a real difference on my last day, and I didn’t have time to think about it being my last day. The fun promptly ended when I had to turn sick children away at the end of our shift—the school which we were borrowing the tent from always lets us know if we leave at 4:01 instead of 4:00.
I packed when I got home. I hate packing. I now have two bags, which is hefty and difficult when moving around, but I got them to less than 30 pounds total, so I rarely pay airline fees.
Worse than packing was dinner. I went to a restaurant downtown with the clinic team, then pushed the thought of never seeing these people again out of my head while I inhaled pita bread with tzatziki sauce.
I left the apartment at 6:45 a.m. Our nurse drove me another person from the clinic sat in the back seat. It was a quiet ride. I’m not sure if it was quiet because something great was ending or because someone in the back seat sucks all the energy out of rooms, but it was quiet.
As soon as the plane left the runway, I started scheming on how and when I can get back to Lesvos.