Helping Syrian Refugees in Greece

What can a fulfilling retirement look like? Though it is different for everyone, we have a couple of clients, a husband and wife, who also both happen to be doctors. They retired a couple of years ago, and when they recently realized the need for their skills in Greece, they made the decision to travel abroad to help Syrian refugees. With their permission (the only edit being made was to the name) below is their first weeks synopsis of their experiences.

Subject: Greece

May 4, 2016

Walking through the refugee tents along the train tracks of Idomeni I suddenly see my child. It all becomes acutely real in that moment. This sweet, beautiful 1 year old red head sitting in the shade of a nylon tent could be my son (but as her mother tells me “oh no, girl, girl!”). She holds her daughter and smiles while her young husband, who was a French literature major in university, tells us their story in bits and pieces through an interpreter.

They both left Syria 4 years ago because of the war (didn’t share details) but actually met in the refugee camp in Turkey. They married in that camp and their daughter was born there. The conditions were difficult, the weather harsh, the sanitation poor and they could leave the camp only for short periods of time. Stricter there but still, they say, better conditions than here in Idomeni. They were given 2 week rations that would last only 3 days but were fortunate to have an uncle who was able to give them some supplies. They left Turkey 4 months ago, traveling by foot, boat and bus hoping to make their way to Germany. They have now been at this border in their small dusty tent for weeks. His wife is pregnant and they do not want their child to be born in these conditions so they are contemplating returning to Turkey. His wife would go to the camp and he would stay out of the camp and try to find a job. He learned Turkish while in the camp in Turkey and feels that he could work and make some sort of life there. But they are afraid that they may miss the opportunity to get to Germany if the borders open. It is hard to accept after what they have been through that they may have to give up, let go of their dream, turn around and make the difficult journey back to Turkey.

As we speak, he becomes more animated and says, “I wish you could tell our story. We are not animals.”

I try to imagine losing my home, living in a refugee camp in a foreign country for 4 years, being married there, having my first child there (at the age of 20) and then carrying that child to this barbed wire fence here at the Macedonian border. There are no words.

April 29, 2016

Greetings my friends, if you want to sound like people here draw the middle of friend out till you have no more breath. Everyone is your friend here.

Last night was our first good night of sleep since getting here, we tend to leave by about nine in the morning from the hotel and return around 10 or 11. We actually only see patients for seven or eight hours but by the time we travel and eat we don’t get back till late. Hard to close down the van at night with everybody crowded around.

It’s a rainy morning and I’m staring out the window, the riot police that are staying in this hotel with us are walking by in full gear, like sleepy birds looking for crumbs. I’ve been impressed at their calm and reserve. Each day we pass by them as they position their bus across the train tracks at the Macedonian border. The Macedonian army on the other side don’t appear as non-threatening. We’ve seen a few people beaten up by them while trying to get across the razor wire fence the night before. There are also sporadic fights in the camps as tempers flare more easily this week. Tensions rise as hope declines.

Paula talked to the Greek police yesterday and offered some free medical care. They said they were fine, just miss their families and want to go home. They’re not particularly friendly but they are civil. We’ve been impressed with the equanimity with which the Greeks have accepted this disruption to their lives. Yesterday I had a conversation with an old Greek man that came over while I was playing guitar in the park at lunch time. He asked me if I could play House of the rising Sun. You bet! He spoke some English and I talked with him about how people feel in Polykastro about all these refugees and volunteers. He said we remember what it’s like to be a refugee, some Greeks had fled to Syria during the first world war. I think that’s what he said.

This last week has been one of the most memorable of my life. It starts out slow being here. The camps don’t appear that bad till you’re here for a few days and the conditions and people’s stories sink in. It took us a day or so to get the team working and then we all found ways to see lots of patients and connect with the people here. It’s been really fun to see patients and consult with the younger doctors, we’re called the “the senior docs”. Because we had two doctors that spoke Arabic we’ve done some forays out into the camp. It’s a chance to hear people stories in more depth when we visit their tents. It’s hard to believe some of these tales, yesterday we saw three guys who had walked from Northern Pakistan, across Afghanistan, Iran, picking up some transportation in Turkey and then arriving in Greece through Lesvos and eventually to the Macedonian border. I’ve seen one of them a few times this last week and been tending to his feet which are macerated and inflamed. We work out of the back of the van trying to cordon people away so we can get in and out to get supplies, thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, and meds. It’s a little chaotic but Paula has done a lot of work to get it organized. Everyone wants medications. Surprisingly I’ve only given three courses of antibiotics this last week. We’ve done a lot of acute-care and some internal medicine for chronic problems; diabetes and hypertension. I’m getting used to having kids pushing at my legs, women in heavy garb pushing at my back and gentle prods to my shoulders to come see their family. Somehow it all works we grab a patient and move away from the back of the van. We try to find an interpreter. This week it’s s been harder but somehow some refugees with enough English skills seem to show up. They seem to have all studied literature in University.

We’re in the middle of our second week and starting to feel a little tired. Looking forward to next week. We’re going to spend it with our Airbnb hosts from Athens. They invited us to their olive farm for Easter in Peloponnesus.