In January, my sister, Tama Adelman, a nurse, left for Lesbos, Greece, to work with four colleagues on a medical team for the Syrian Refugees. She joined Valerie Hellerman, director of Hands On Global.
The trip began with a Toothbrush & Underwear campaign in Napa, the key items that were requested by the organization, Refugee4refugees.
Napans donated 1,197 toothbrushes and 1,105 underwear sets. Lufthansa Airlines offered to take these donations, thus saving funds that could be donated directly to the refugees. Below is their story told by Tamra and Valerie in emails from Lesbos.
We learned a lot our first day here, so much to unravel ahead to understand the complexity of it all. We visited the local police station to register, and met up with Omar Alshakal in the morning to drive to Skila, cozy little old town in the north of the island.
Omar is a 23-year-old who swam from Turkey to Greece, made it to Germany and returned here to form the NGO Refugee4refugees. He works tirelessly. Our discussions with him clarified the situation and its dangers.
The Moira camp has more than 7,000 people and was built for 2,500. We drop off our bags of donations. They thank us profusely. Stuff has been brought in from all over the world. Between 150 and 200 people are seen in a day to get clothes. They have learned to keep it very controlled. When they began it was complete chaos; now it is controlled chaos.
The boat spotters are up on the hill with binoculars looking for boats, often overloaded with refugees. If they see boats, a cascade of events kick in. Talk about cold: two people on the hill, take shifts, waiting and watching 24/7. One team was from Ireland and another from California. When the boats come, the medical team does on-site triaging for medical issues. When the new arrivals are stabilized, they are then taken elsewhere.
The sea is turbulent, and it is cold — no snow but chilling weather. Boats are not coming now, so we are going to work outside the camp where the overflow is housed. Outside the camp are hundreds of small summer tents with 10-15 people, families, living in them. People are camping in the olive groves. No one has belongings.
These refugees have fallen through every crack in the universe. They have nothing. They have nowhere to go. There is a huge tent, bigger than a banquet tent that houses the Africans. They are trapped. For more than three years, 150 people have been living in this tent.
There are ethnic clusters; Iraqis, Iranian, Kurds, Afghanis, and Syrian. Omar was going to set up a medical tent for us, but he is concerned about our safety. He thought many hundreds of people could show up, and if they think they are not going to be seen or get medicines, there could be a riot.
We are discussing how to see patients. We think we may go tent to tent with backpacks of medicines and our trauma bag, carry what we need and refill from the van. Two team members, Karen and Brian, will do physio and massage together but we are meeting with “docmobile” and may work with them in their mobile van. That would be best. We have discussed safety awareness and agreed to a meeting place if we get separated or there is any unrest.
We are also talking about protecting our hearts so we can do this work. It is really devastating to see this end of the human spectrum. Who are these refugees? I hope we get to hear some of their stories. What happens when your world disintegrates? It is a much more dangerous situation then we imagined.
I am having some waves of fatigue. Too much to process and too much work to do to get caught up in the process. We will do what we can. We all have recommitted to this. Our situational awareness is heightened and our hearts are open. We are in an apartment in Mytiliene and will look for a house to rent in the hills, 15 minutes from the camp.
Our first world problem is it is almost 10 p.m. and there is no milk for morning coffee.
After initial impressions
It is hard to articulate the scope of emotional reaction. Keeping ones heart open without feeling over whelmed is a challenge. Thank goodness for yoga breathing as a centering tool.
People tend to cluster by ethnic groups — people from every country in the region. Even in a desperate situation, there is discrimination.
We are trying to stay connected but it is hard. Trying to practice staying in heart mode, but this is a challenge for me.
We met up with Omar this morning, and he took us to see the Happy Family project. WOW is a great non-governmental organization, based in Switzerland. They are trying to provide some normalcy to the refugees. They provide meals for up to 800 a day, as well as a gym, a toddler play space, coffee and tea, a place to play games, a barber, tailor, and legal clinic. The German medical NGO, Docmobile, has a clinic space there. They are treating sometimes 150 people a day out of a three-room shed turned into a clinic
I also met Sherif, a Syrian from the UK running a food project called Sultana. They drove a full-size luxury bus converted into a food kitchen from the UK to Greece. It feeds a hot meal to 300-400 people three days a week. He said they could feed more, but need more funds and volunteers. Today, he was cooking cauliflower, potatoes, rice and tomato pasta. Smelled wonderful.
The Moira camp has no hot food program and distributes what looks like military rations. The people say the food is terrible, so this hot delicious food is coveted, hence the registration system. One hundred and fifty people were served today. Many of them got new underwear or a toasty fleece. Today was really cold.
By noon we were outside the Moira camp and did what I can only describe as gorilla medicine. We started with a tent visit to see an Iraqi man with a leg injury; it was bad. We undressed his wound and there was an obvious bone infection. Mark Ibsen, the MD, kept asking the translator ask him how this happened. The man kept saying, kaliznakoff, a Russian gun. That explained the holes in his leg. He also complained about the soles of his feet. We found out that he was tortured in an Iraqi prison and the soles of his feet were beaten.
It took only minutes for the word to be out that there was a doctor. Several men came into the tent and people were standing outside. We decided the safest way to work was out of the van. We folded up the back seats to use as a counter. Tama did the pharmacy from the middle seat, Karen was tasked with finding and delivering supplies. I triaged and Mark saw patients by the back door of the van. Brian kept the van running for a bit of heat and primarily for our safety so if there was any unrest we could just jump in, close the doors and leave.
It seemed fine, though, today. People were grateful. But we heard stories; so many of these people have suffered unimaginable physical and mental abuses. There is so much PTSD. The greatest unmet medical need is for mental health. Some people have just gone crazy. We saw 28 patients, and then the crowd was getting too big, and the wind was blowing really cold. We gave out index cards with numbers and promised to return tomorrow.
We ended our gorilla clinic and did one more tent call. A 26-year-old Syrian man had a pneumonia and both ears were infected. He lives in a summer tent with 13 other people, sleeping on the floor in a light weight sleeping bag. I looked around the tent — such meager possessions, only day packs, half empty. Mark gave the man antibiotics, and I gave him a liter of water.
There are more than 65 million refugees in the world. The UNHCR camp is unmanageably bleak and surrounded by high wire fences. Women, children and families in metal boxes with only two showers.
Toilets overflowing, just horrible conditions. There are portable toilets. No lights. The only heat is in tin cans with wood, but not many of them. No hot food. Mud everywhere. Medicines Without Borders has a tent outside the camp where they are working with kids and pregnant women. They are overwhelmed. We will visit with them today. It just seems there is not enough of anything. People have to queue up for food, medical care, clothing, and not everyone gets what they need. They have to wait several days for anything. That is where the danger lies. People are desperate.
Finally back in the comfort of our BnB, we discuss the logistics of our gorilla medicine. We were finding the rhythm. We are ready to do it again.
Day 3: Stories
We decided to limit our visit and saw 40 patients. Karen was able to do some massage for those injured by bombs. Scabies is rampant. A few had infected throats and some pneumonia. Kids with ear infections. We heard more stories today.
A man from Iraq who suffered injuries from a bomb had head, neck and back trauma. He had major PTSD. Karen did some massage work with him but he could barely tolerate touch. He said his wife and child were in the camp but he was not with them because he had lost his mind and hurt them. He was ashamed. He felt very sad.
Mental health issues are huge here and not being addressed. Many refugees say they cannot sleep and have terrible nightmares. Their reality is a nightmare with no solution in sight. They have hopes of getting through the bureaucratic maze to start their lives again, but that dream becomes more of a nightmare. Desperation replaces the relief of survival.
We met a man from Cameroon who was a rap singer. His parents were murdered, and he had to flee the country. Somehow he got on a plane to Iraq and then walked overland for 30 days to Turkey. There he was beaten so badly by Turkish police, it left him walking with crutches for more than a year.
Brian, our team member, spent some time with this man as they spoke French together. Brian went to the African tent with him. Appalling. There are cages, like large dog kennels, that people cover with blankets and sleep inside. I just cannot understand this inhumane treatment. There is no shower in this overflow camp, and some people said they had not showered for months. Omar’s Refugee4refugees warehouse gives them clean clothes, but the scabies stay with them.
There were some really touching moments. A Syrian man asked us where we were from, asked us if we were being paid, and when we said, “We are from America and we are volunteers,” he was so surprised. He said, “You came here for helping us? You bring us this medicine?” He thanked us profusely.
Today was a good day. A few Syrian men sang to me. I could breathe today.
We left, restocked for tomorrow and went to a medicinal hot spring about 10 minutes from the camp. Our privilege allowed this escape. We decided we will bring some of the men with PTSD to the hot spring as a treatment, to relieve stress. We agonized over doing this for only a few; we cannot do it for all.
Caring for these refugees takes so much. The United Nations has set up the camp but the smaller NGOs, and there are many here, have to pick up the slack. There is so much slack. There are volunteers from all over, mostly Europeans, who are furious at the EU for not stepping up. We also met some Brazilians.
Many of the volunteers come for several months and many have returned. That is a tribute to our humanity. There are people stepping up from all over the world. What about our governments? Greece should be held in the highest esteem for their sympathy. but they are overwhelmed. Their economy has tanked, they grant asylum but there are no jobs. We will do some work in Athens and will see the next stage. My current understanding is that after months or years at the camp, some are granted asylum and are moved to old apartments or hotels in Athens.
Meanwhile we are preparing for tomorrow.
Tama and Valerie are back from and will be talking about their experiences on Wednesday, March 21, in Napa. To attend, email email@example.com for details.