Recently I was given the opportunity to participate in the COHI response to the much-publicized Syrian refugee crisis in Greece. I had never been to Greece, but I spent several years traveling in the Middle East and studying Arabic when I was in undergrad and I looked forward to applying that experience in a medical context.
I prepared myself to see utter despair and mayhem in the refugee camps (as things are often portrayed in the media), and I was was pleasantly surprised to arrive at a camp that was clean, well-organized, and better-equipped than I had anticipated. I worked with a partner organization, Human Appeal, to provide outpatient medical care 24/7 to inhabitants of the camp. The camp I worked at housed families primarily from Syria and most of them had recently arrived from Turkey by way of a dangerous raft trip across the Mediterranean.
As a primary entry point for refugees into the European Union, Greece and, in particular, the island of Lesvos have been extraordinarily accommodating. Despite their own fiscal crisis the Greek government has hosted tens of thousands of migrants seeking refuge. I saw this played out in the streets of Lesvos as locals would hand candy and food to Syrian children waiting outside of the stores. The local Greek doctors I worked with had spent countless hours at the camp, taking long shifts to ensure continual medical access for the new arrivals. The aid workers were tired but dedicated. One of my major contributions was to be able to offer some relief to them, to stave off the burn-out that inevitably comes with this kind of work.
Things were busy in the medical tent. This population (unlike other refugee or immigrant groups that I have worked with) is newly-displaced and many of them came from a society which incorporates regular medical care. I spent three days in the medical tent and saw over one hundred patients in that time, men and women, young and old. The majority of their medical issues were minor but I felt like, more than actual cough syrup or tylenol, they benefited from a sense of being able to care for themselves and their family members. They were often reassured by their normal vital signs and and other physical findings. Maybe their entire world had just fallen apart, but their heart was still beating regularly and their body could heal. In between tending to the scrapes and sore throats, I heard bits and pieces of their painful stories and I was humbled at just how much strength it had taken them to arrive here, to this fragile place of safety, and how much courage it would take them to continue on to their destination.