Rick from Utrecht worked as a doctor in a refugee camp

The traces which two weeks of volunteer work in refugee camps on Lesbos have left in me, run deep. The feeling of injustice with regard to the treatment of my fellow human beings. The shame for Europe. The incredulity that we try to sell this inhumane form of ‘shelter’. My view on the world and on humanity have been permanently scarred on Lesbos; my heart gained a flicker of hope.
Moria, the camp in which I have worked on Lesbos, evokes the images of concentration camps. This camp was set up as a ‘transit camp’ for no more than 2.250 refugees for no longer than 48 hours. Currently, Moria houses 3.300 people permanently and this number is growing. There is barely enough food, the water supply runs dry on a regular basis and people sleep in a provisional container, if they even have that ‘luxury’. Many have been waiting here for the asylum procedure for over a year. The Greek civil service is straining to keep up and Europe cheerfully reassures “the EU – Turkey deal is a success”. Right. Have they ever been here to see what it’s like? In a way, it’s a miracle that refugees are able to live here together so peacefully.
The work I am doing here is nothing but a tiny drop in a huge ocean. Our sympathetic ear is the only meagre positive thing that Europe gives them. Their deeply rooted fear and panic cause them terror and anxiety over every ‘minor’ physical complaint they may have. In my consultation room I see a veritable parade of diversity and emotion. Behind almost every head ache or belly ache lies a complex story. The people before you have often been devastated physically and mentally and the despondency is clearly visible. The effects of horrific forms of (sexual) abuse in Congo, tribal prosecution in Nigeria, the horrible violence of war in the middle East and the horrors they have gone through on the way to this place. It places a clamp around my heart and sickens me.
It is with pain in my heart that I leave these people behind, knowing that I can escape this feeling, but they might never feel safe and at home somewhere. Hopefully, a long line of people will succeed me, people who do care about them, hearten them, help them. It’s no lack of effort by my fellow volunteers at Boat Refugee Foundation, they are wonderful people with a heart of gold! We were able to rely on each other and have worked together to create a better world. It was great to catch our breaths at the beach, to enjoy the impressive volcanic nature and of course the excellent Greek ice cream.
Would you like to support people that have had to leave their home and need help, and do you have some time to spare (two weeks is enough)? Boat Refugee Foundation is in desperate need of volunteers. Apart from medical care in the camps Moria and Kara Tepe, the foundation also organizes activities for refugees, like swimming, English classes, children’s activities and ‘social shifts’. There are many options and you will always work with wonderful people.

What if I were there?

Try to imagine. You fled your own country because of war, prosecution, abuse, threats because of your religious or political choices. After a long and dangerous journey you finally arrive with your family or friends in Turkey. A dangerous trip in a wreck across the sea awaits. Smugglers force you to throw your possessions overboard, so more people can fit in the boat. You lose everything: your papers, photo’s, important medication. If you are lucky, the boat reaches the other side. Sometimes it takes hours of floating on the open sea, in which fear, panic and despair slowly rise. You are terrified. When you finally reach the Greece coast, you are ecstatic: You are safe in Europe!! Now your life will be different. Now you can start building a new and safe life. But soon you realize this bubble is bursting.

You are transferred to a refugee camp, which is overflowing. Even the first impression scares you: barbed wires, police and many, many people. With no less then 3000 other men, women and children you need to stay in the camp. Not for a few days, but for a long period of time. You may be waiting for more than 18 months, without knowing what will happen. Will you be sent back to Turkey? Will you be allowed to stay in Europe? You are just not getting any information. Despair is growing each day. You feel unsafe, you can’t sleep anymore, your thoughts never turn off. You are suffering from reliving memories and nightmares. It even goes as far as you saying out loud you rather wish you had died in your own country than making this journey with this camp as your destination.

This is not the story of one refugee from the camp. No, this is the story of all those 3000 people in the camp on Lesbos. The despair is taking its toll. This is reflected in different forms of (severe) self-mutilation, extreme panic attacks and endless sleeping disorders each day at the medical cabin. Despite being able to – with a great team – be a drop in the ocean for eleven days (by providing English lessons, medical care and organizing children’s activities, among other things), it is not nearly enough.

Europe, wake up! This is inhumane! Nobody will ‘just’ leave everything behind. Nobody will ‘just’ get on a rickety boat at sea with a chance of drowning. Nobody wants to stay in a camp like that.

What if you were there? What if I was there? It is unimaginable. You can try, but it won’t even come close to reality.

We are now on our way back home. We are free to go anywhere we want in the world. Nobody will refuse us or place us in a camp. Why the difference? Purely and simply because we were born in the Netherlands, and not in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Congo. It feels unfair and it is unfair!

Text: Reina Timmer