A regular day in Samos

A father and mother from Congo and their two month old baby are new in the camp. The father is very worried about his daughter. The baby looks happy and well-fed, which is confirmed when weighing her. I take them to the medical cabin to create an infant passport after weighing and measuring her. They speak French, which can be quite a challenge for them. Not many people here speak French. Most aid agencies use English as their main language. Fortunately I speak enough French to be able to talk to them. The father is really worried about the health of his baby in this camp. He asks for Dettol to be able to disinfect the child’s clothes. He is worried about infections. I explain to him that he has a very healthy baby who is getting breastfed, which gives her extra protection against infections. It seems to reassure the parents a bit. It cannot be easy to stay in a refugee camp with your small baby.

After a while the father gets back to me. He tells me he needs me for a problem. His head is so full, he really needs medication. Maybe I can give him something? I tell him I am a peadiatric nurse and he will need to wait at the cabin for the doctor. But he keeps coming back with his worried, begging eyes, to ask if I really cannot give him any medication. Also for his brother, he too has too much on his mind. And after having seen me a few times, he decides to cut his losses. And the rest of the night I see the two big African brothers standing in line for the doctor, sometimes sending me a depressed look.

New people arrived, among them nine children. The people are waiting for their health check with the doctor. They look dejected and tired. There are mainly women, with a little girl of around sixteen months old. They most likely arrived by boat. Most women wear the same sweatpants. The police escorts the new people to a bench where they need to wait. I only saw one little smile when I gave the little girl a coloring book and marker. In the middle of the coloring children sits an old man, he is concentrating on coloring a picture for his granddaughter. No markers have a cap anymore. A big, outstanding boy asks me to help put the caps back on. I think he is mentally disabled. He spends each day at our cabin.

The girl of the Syrian family who fled after their grandfather, grandmother and aunt have been killed by an air-strike is back. She is smart and speaks English really well. Every day she is here to color very meticulous, and very long. Her father told me his son doesn’t sleep and is very anxious at night. He is referred to the hospital in Samos-town. A boy comes to me and makes a gesture with his hands I do not immediately understand. I think he wants the jumping rope, and I tell him: ‘Tomorrow’. But he persists and makes shaking movements with his little hands. Suddenly it rings a bell: he wants the dice. And indeed, he does.

There is turmoil between the small boys again. Two small boys of around four or five years old are fighting. When Mathieu grabs one and holds him because he keeps struggling, the other one returns and starts kicking the boy again. I grab him and place him on a bench. The boy Mathieu is still holding, tries to fight free. I tell Mathieu I will take him to try and calm him down with a book. Once I pick him up he clings to me and he remains sitting on my lap for a long time. He is unresponsive. He doesn’t want anything. He really is in need of clean clothes and a bath. He smells of urine and snot is running from his nose. But I keep on stroking him on his back, that is what he seems to need now. And after about fifteen minutes he climbs off my lap and quietly starts coloring. Later Ashly, the doctor, tells me she knows this boy. He is Kurdish and is being bullied by the other boys all the time.

A family that arrived today with their 5 month old baby, comes to our cabin. Together with an interpreter and Vanessa the doctor we go in. I ask some questions to the parents and undress the baby. While measuring the baby she starts to cry, she is hungry. Because the child is crying so much I proceed to make her a bottle of milk. The bottle is sterilized and I quickly turn to the mother and child. The baby refuses the bottle and the parents are getting restless. The bottle needs to be filled with porridge. Fortunately, we have this on stock, so I quickly go back to the milk-room and turn the bottle into a porridge bottle. Thankfully she drinks this. Measuring the head will be saved for next time. It’s cold outside and they don’t have any warm clothes for the child, so they go quickly back to the tent.

Text: Anne Frieling
Photo: Anne Frieling

The futur

One of the reason, I offered to volunteer with the Boat Refugee Foundation was because I wanted to help. Like many others, I heard bad things on the news – and I wanted to help. But as well as helping – I wanted to understand. Understand what the issues were and what we can do about them. After two weeks in Lesbos – I think I have a better understanding of what’s happening but more than ever I am confused and conflicted about what happens next.

The Boat Refugee Foundations holds ‘cultural awareness’ sessions for all the volunteers. I was grateful for this. I probably should have got a grasp of the ‘Sunni and the ‘Shiites’ before I set off – but it seemed a bit complicated. It is. Syria is complicated. Afghanistan is really complicated – and that’s before we start trying to understand the issues in Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Eritrea, DRC, Algeria, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Uganda and all the other nationalities that end up in Moria.
One of the people I met has fled his homeland from the Taliban. It simply wasn’t safe for him there – and he was forced to run. He has already spent time in a Turkish jail. He has already paid a smuggler and taken his chances on dangerous little boat – in order to get to the safety of Europe. He is lucky. He escaped the Taliban, he survived the boat. He is in a refugee camp in Europe.

He doesn’t feel lucky. He’s been here for eleven months. He tells me that he feels like he has wasted a year of his life. He has no idea when his asylum application will be processed. The Immigration ACT states that asylum application should be assessed within six months. It isn’t. He has no faith in the asylum process – but he cannot escape it. His hope is that he will be granted asylum in Greece. His friends in Athens tell him that conditions there are bad – and his hope is that once on the mainland- he can again flee the border – to try and find a life and a job in mainland Europe.

I asked him if he thought it would be better to wait in Athens for a legal opportunity to come to mainland Europe. He laughs. ‘That will never happen’ he chuckles. I think he is right.

We compare Facebook pages. Mine are full of pictures of English weddings, talk of Brexit and videos of cats falling over. His are full of Arabian weddings, talk of Taliban attacks and videos of cats falling over. I suspect I don’t know how frequent the Taliban attacks are. I also suspect that he doesn’t know how welcoming the Europeans will be.

I’m not sure I know what ‘Populism’ is. I think it’s something to do with tighter immigration laws and clamping down on illegal immigration. I don’t think its good news for the Moria men. I’m not sure how to explain to my new refugee friends that Europe has a rising hostility towards refugees and that they are likely to find some people who will see them as criminals and terrorists. I’m guessing this is still preferable to the Taliban.

I have learnt several things whilst in Lesbos with the Boat Refugee Foundation:
1. There is a difference between refugees seeking asylum and economic migration
2. It can be difficult to tell the difference
3. The problem isn’t going away
Globally, there are approximately 1.2 million refugees. 3000 of them (90% men) are in Moria. They nearly all have phones and Facebook – and they know what life is like in Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan, Holland and the UK.
The authorities at Moria (UNHCR) have a difficult job. I’m no expert in this – but it seems that they have been tasked with:
1. Making Moria a safe, warm and healthy environment for 3000 young single men.
2. Processing thousands of asylum application quickly (< 6 months) – but slowly (as long as possible) – as they really have no-where else for them to go (In the UK – we call this Exit-Block)
3. Making Moria sufficiently shit – that people would rather stay in a Turkish jail than come here.

So what can I do:
I don’t know. I have overwhelming sympathy for my new found Middle Eastern friends – but I also understand that Europe can’t cope with 1.2 million refugees. I really don’t know.
What I do know is that the Boat Refugee Foundation provides basic medical care for a small number of them. They also provide psychological support for some damaged and vulnerable individuals. I’m quietly proud that I was able to be a small part of that. Either as a donor, a volunteer or simply a well-wisher– I hope you would like to be a part of that too.

For me – My time is done and I can return home to my family. For the refugees the wait continues.

Text: Dave Clark
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

The Moria Men

First they help the children. Then the women, then the dogs and then the cats. And then the men. Moria is where they put the men.

History tells us that it’s probably our own fault. For too long – the men came first. And we wasted that privilege on alcohol, sex, greed, status and violence. The NGO’s spend much of their time protecting others from men. I can see why we fell down the list.
Moria is where they put the men. But Moria is not filled with violent, hate filled men who have burnt their bridges. It may look like a prison. It certainly feels like prison. But the men in Moria are not there because they are prisoners – they are they because they are men.

The Boat Refugee Foundation uses refugees as interpreters. It’s not ideal – but it works well. It gives a small number of refugees the opportunity to help their peers whilst bettering their English and give me access to numerous affordable language skills. Importantly for me – it give me something else – my first access to refugees and a better chance to understand their journey and their situation.

Going to Moria for the first time is a bit intimidating. There are guards on the gate and the tall grey fences with barb wire aren’t very friendly. It’s my first shift – and the first refugees I meet are the interpreters. An hour later, I’ve met a chemistry student, a snooker player, a biomechanical engineer and a guy who straightens his hair in a refugee camp. An hour after that, I’ve been beaten at chess, been taught a traditional Afghan dance and seen pictures of a family picnic in Iraq. (Who knew that people went on family picnics in Iraq?!) It turns out that the men are in Moria, not because they are prisoners – they are there because they are men.

Later in the day – we are called to see a patient in the camp prison. BRFs Medical team are in Moria from 4pm – 9am and we will see all types of patients anywhere in the camp. The camp police have come to the medical cabin and asked us to come and see a patient who has collapsed.

The most striking thing about the Moria prison – is that it’s almost identical to the rest of Moria. The beds, the food, the atmosphere. The only real difference is that the prisoners are not free to come and go. If we ignore that – the prison looks a lot like ‘home’
Today it is good news. The patient has collapsed – but his problems are not medical. We are able to use the excellent BRF portable medical bags to assess him and he doesn’t appear to have significant medical issues. He is suffering a panic-attack – probably associated with some deep psychological scars. It looks scary – but it isn’t. We are able to calm the patient and reassure the police.

Like many – his problems are deep and psychological. I think this is good news – but I’m not sure. I’m pleased that the Boat Refugee Foundation is trying to address these issues as well. Our sister “Pyscho Social Support” team are busy trying to provide the refugees in the camp of Lesbos an outlet for these issues. This may just be an opportunity to sit and chat, it may be the social interaction provided at games nights or it may be the educational opportunities provided to learn English – or to learn more about western culture. I suspect it’s all these things. I suspect that all these things won’t be enough. They don’t replace a family or a home or a job. But I suspect it does make a difference. Just by being here – we make a difference. Here in Moria – where nobody cares; the Boat Refugee Foundation and a small number of NGO’s turn up daily and show that we care. We show that we understand that they are normal people. Not criminals. Not terrorists. Not anything really – just single men – who have nowhere else to go.

Text: Dave Clarke
Photo: Arie Kievit

Life in Lesbos

I’m standing next to a refugee from Syria. Its two am – and he is bleeding on my shoes. It’s a nightmare to try and get blood out of shoes. His friends dragged him to our medical cabin – after he took a razor blade to his own wrist. He’s probably drunk. His arm looks pretty bad.

He doesn’t seem to feel the pain – but he is bleeding quite a lot. He won’t sit still and now he wants a cigarette. I agree to let him go. I’m not sure I had any choice. Outside there is a large group of men. Some of them are concerned friends. Others have just come to see what the commotion is. I don’t really blame them – Life in Moria is soul-destroyingly boring.

Now everyone is shouting. I’ve no idea what it’s all about. My interpreter is shouting too. I catch the eye of the other volunteer doctor. She looks a bit scared. I’m glad I’m not the only one. I quietly squeeze his forearm to try and slow the bleeding.
The cigarette is finished. The shouting isn’t. The bleeding isn’t. It’s time to move. Trying to look like I’m in charge – I announce that we are going back inside the cabin. To my relief it works. I like it inside the cabin. It’s warm, well lit, I have medical equipment – and they’re aren’t 20 angry men shouting at each other.

He asks me to take to take my hand off his arm. He wants to take a picture of it on his phone. Really?! I have a closer look. It’s really deep. Is that bone? I’m good at this. I actually quite enjoy this. But normally, I have security guards, sedation, space, light, warmth and if it’s not going well, I can call a friend an they’ll come and help me out. This is Moria – and I’m sat in a portakabin I have used twice before. BRF have done an excellent job at equipping and preparing the cabin. The small space is well organised and despite the unfamiliar surroundings, we are able to find the items we need.

Despite the problems – we successfully stop the bleeding, clean the wound and fourteen stiches later – it looks a bit more like an arm. He takes another photo – I’m quietly proud of the work we’ve done. I wander if it’ll make it onto Facebook. It’s only a small thing – but if BRF weren’t here – his arm would be permanently damaged and he may have even bled to death.

‘Auto-mutilation’ or ‘Self-harm’ is common here. It’s not hard to see why. Despite the media portrayal of refugees, the most striking thing about the refugees I have met – is how normal they are. Normal, kind, friendly, good-humoured, intelligent young men whose lives have been torn apart. I’m surprised that we don’t see more auto-mutilation. The loss of family, the undiagnosed PTSTD, the boredom, the gradual loss of hope, the loss of humanity and then the endless wait.

I’m not sure I would have made it this far.

Text: Dave Clarke
Photo: Henk van Lambalgen Photography

‘May we meet again’

It’s Thursday afternoon, 4 PM. We enter Camp Moria for my last night shift. So many familiar faces as I enter the camp with a crash bag strapped to my back. ‘Hello my friend, how are you?’ is what I hear from all sides and funny enough, it feels good and familiar to walk here. I consider how remarkable it is to know so many people in such a short time, of the many people that have been stuck here for a long time without any prospect, often for months. Once I arrive at the medical cabin, the most familiar faces are waiting for me: the translators with whom I have gone through so much these past weeks. We have seen every emotion in every extreme version and I have felt them all with full intensity. Sadness for the loss of others, happiness when someone smiles in surprise because I greet him in Arabic, disbelief because of the many horrible stories, but mostly the sense of being powerless to do something about the despair here. So often I pulled my hair in frustration and stood with my back against the wall, frustrated about how little you can do. Life stands still for many here, with all the trauma of the past fresh in the flashbacks they have at night.

Panic attacks resulting from these flashbacks have made the most impression on me and as I put away the crash bag, a familiar face passes me that has left a bigger mark on me than he will ever know. It’s the face of a tall striking Syrian man, who smiles at me with a twinkle in his eyes and hurries towards me to shake my hand. I hardly recognize this face from last week, when I looked into his eyes for an hour; eyes which were filled with horrifying fear, to get him out of his panic attack. A very intense hour in which only he and I existed; him hyperventilating in his reliving, me with my hands on his abdomen and forehead to make him focus on his breathing and on me. Breathing with him, repeating endlessly that he is safe here and that he will be alright. But will he? Yes, I’m certain of that, but the question is when. We talk for a while and he is on his ‘way’ again. I smile, enjoy this moment and am happy to have been able to mean something for him in this bizarre world called Moria.

As if it was predestined, I see more men this evening, more men I have treated when they were in a totally different state the last time I saw them. My first patient: the Afghan man with auto mutilation, whose sutures – which I applied myself – I remove. He is doing better and I can tell he is clean shaven. Sometime later the boy from last night’s fight, who has dutifully come after I have urged him last night to have his wounds checked out. But, like any other shift, I hear awful stories and see grown men cry like babies out of desperation and grief. It frustrates me to no end that they have no perspective and the sense of being powerless overwhelms me. How long will this last? Judging from the new containers that have been put in place of the tents that were removed, the end is nowhere near.

At 11 PM my shift ends and I leave the cabin. A group of men is outside and the boy from last night’s fight addresses me. ‘Best doctor, you help my friends!’. He points towards his friend who is suffering from a headache. After that, at two others and he has a question himself. I’m sorry my friend, but my shift has ended and with it, my time here. I tell him that my fellow doctors will help him and shake his hand in confidence, knowing that this hard, but also very rewarding work will be continued by the many great volunteers succeeding me. Unfortunately this is necessary, but I hope with all my heart that this bizarre world of Moria, that you have to experience to understand what it’s like, will not exist for long after today. I walk my – for now – last steps in Moria while the translators wave goodbye to me, hoping that soon they will be able to go wherever and whenever they please. We don’t say goodbye (“We won’t die, right!?”) but ‘may we meet again’. With these words, I leave Moria. I am so happy to have been able to do something worthwhile here, but am also afraid for the many people for whom this bizarre Moria world will be the harsh reality in the coming months.

Text: Tessa Schrijver
Photo: Tessa Schrijver

A painful reality

And this strange feeling which about 350 doctors and nurses before me have gone through when leaving Lesbos. The strange feeling that you can go “home” without any problems with customs. Whether home is in The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, England, the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, to name a few. That you are able to use your passport to go back to a place where some people are hoping to go to, sometimes for more than 11 months.

There is a fine line between cause and effect here. Considering that the majority of the people sleep in improvised tent camps or cabins and that because of the cold everyone prefers to stay inside, it is not surprising that every virus is spreading in no-time, resulting in the whole range of symptoms: headaches, running noses, soar throats, earaches, and sometimes pneumonia. Considering that for most, dinner usually consists of beans with rice, every day, without enough vegetables or something with enough vitamins and fiber available, it is no surprise that people complain about upset stomachs and constipation. When seeing the poor sanitation lacking hot water, as well as the dry air in the cabins due to heaters that are constantly burning, it is not surprising that people come in with all sorts of skin problems, such as fungus and eczema. It won’t be a surprise when in the coming months, stomach viruses will appear.

These cases keep the medical team quite busy and the medication that is provided is adding up. I calculated what is provided on average each month: about 6000 paracetamol tablets, 3000 ibuprofen or diclofenac, about 2500 strepsils, 850 capsules of amoxicilline (this is about 55 courses), 2 kg movicolon, 500 antacids and several allergy tablets against itches and inhalers for asthma attacks, just to give a few examples.
It’s not these numbers that made the biggest impression, however. The horrible stories of people who talk about tortures by De-ash or other parties which resulted in leaving their home country. Losing brothers, sisters, parents or other relatives because of the ongoing violence. The panic attacks due to reliving the fear, depressed patients who sometimes come to see you, desperate because they received more threats on social media, and many other issues that are an ordeal for the mental health, those things made a much bigger impression.

I gave up hope that Moira will be dismantled and that the people stying in this overflowing camp will be transferred to other countries. But still, there are people who try to make the best out of it in a positive way. Greeks and several other volunteers who try to support the people each day and children who, as anywhere in the world, are able to play and enjoy themselves. This, together with the weather that seems to improve slowly, is reason to be a little bit hopeful, a little…

Text: Arno Maas
Photo: Arie Kievit

A cup of tea in the barbed wire

The police closes the gates of the small medical area in the camp. All our volunteers are now locked-in with the new arrivals. We cannot go anywhere, surrounded and enclosed by fences and barbed wire. The new people arrived on the island three hours ago. Some are shivering on our benches below our cabins, still cold and soaked from the water that splashed into their boat. Under the benches, next to their muddy shoes are their small backpacks, also covered in mud. In these backpacks are their whole lives: these are probably all the items they took from the place that was once their home. A baby is crying constantly. The older kids have wet themselves and smell anything but fresh. The police is standing spread amongst us. The women cry, the men stare with hollow eyes. The atmosphere is tense, emotional, and weighing on our shoulders. We, volunteers, look at each other. Determined this time. Thís is the moment that we are able to show these people that they are not forgotten in this big, scary world. Thís is the moment to give them back some humanity and to roll up our sleeves.

What an amazing team we have. Together we speak, among others, Arab, French and English. We offer everyone a cup of hot tea. In the milk room we have clean diapers, baby wipes, juices, milk and cerelac for the baby’s. The small children are able to see our doctors immediately to get a health check. We offer hot cerelac so the mothers are able to feed their hungry and cold children. The soft, warm baby blankets appear and are being handed out. We place our electric blanket on the floor and play games with the children to make them smile again. Because of the many languages we speak, we can answer many questions and we make the scary moments for the new arrivals a little less frightening.

After two months I am back home in The Netherlands, sitting on the couch watching reruns of the show about farmers looking for love. With a hot cup of tea it feels as if I never left. It almost feels as if the past two months never happened, it seems to surreal.
I want to thank the Boat Refugee Foundation. I want to thank them for their presence on the island. Thinking about Samos, I know how hard the life is for some people in the camp. Every day the endless waiting. The endless waiting for what? Not knowing what was coming, realizing more than ever that they had to leave almost everything behind, they left for Greece. And there a life surrounded by fences and wire awaits them. A life in which they sometimes need to spend the first, frightening moments wet and cold in an enclosed medical area.

And just there, just over the border into Europe are the volunteers of the Boat Refugee Foundation waiting in the camp for these people. Every day, regardless if its a national holiday, a free day or a Sunday, the milk room and medical cabin are open. We are always there to provide a cup of hot tea, to provide fathers and mothers with baby supplies, to organize kids activities and to see patients. It is comforting to know that, while I am no longer there, other fantastic volunteers will do exactly what I have been doing. It gives me hope that there are still people that will provide new arrivals with a cup of tea when they are still waiting wet and cold in the medical area. And above all, I am grateful that there are volunteers in the camp with a shoulder to cry on and a sympathetic ear to, where possible, give back a little piece of humanity to the people in the camp, a place surrounded by high fences.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel
Photo: Arie Kievit