Interpreter Farzad: ‘I can be helpful by making people feel understood’

Meet Farzad from Iran. He is part of our ground team; a group of amazing volunteers who live in Moria themselves. Despite their difficult situations, they chose to be of service to others. Just like Farzad, who has been helping as an interpreter in our medical clinic in Lesbos since last month. We are very grateful for his help!

“Interpreting is much more than just literally translating the words between the patient and de medic. It’s about trust, listening and setting people at ease. Sometimes, when the doctor is away for a while to get medicine, people open up and tell me about their background. I think I can be most helpful when I listen to people and make them feel heard and understood.

When I arrived in Moria I saw the situation and got depressed. I feel sorry about the conditions in which people are living here. Staying active by working in the clinic really helps me cope with all of it. I know English, so why not use it to help others. It is important to use my English to help other people while at the same time, helping myself and learning new things.

It’s been great to meet and work alongside people from so many different nationalities. I can learn a lot about different cultures, countries and languages. One of the doctors sometimes writes down some German words for me to learn, and I do the same for him. I’ve also gained a lot of knowledge about healthcare.

My wish for the future is to study again. Back in Iran I studied information technology, but unfortunately wasn’t able to finish. I’m going to continue studying when I get asylum. Also, I’m a soccer player. Back in Iran I played in a league that is just one level below the most prestigious competition of the country. I’d like to join a soccer club here and play again.”

– Farzad, interpreter @ medical clinic


Credits: Tessa Kraan

Volunteer Esmée: ‘In the bitter cold, I was welcomed everywhere in Moria’

Last month, approximately 7000 people arrived on the Greek Islands. Boats full of people, like you and me, who were forced to leave everything behind due to conflict and violence. People who are looking for a safe harbour in the European Union (EU). One of these supposedly safe harbours is the refugee camp of Moria on Lesvos. Last winter, I volunteered there for the psychosocial support team of Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF).

Moria has been described as the world’s worst refugee camp and as hell on earth due to the poor living conditions, lack of safety and overpopulation. The Pope even called it a concentration camp. Striking similarity: the identification card people receive after registration is called an “Ausweis”. The first thing that hits you when you enter Moria is the smell of sewage, which you never get used to. The next you notice are seemingly hundreds of tents and some metal containers. Near this entrance, I meet Mohammed, an early 20’s Syrian man, dressed in a smart shirt and jacket and flipflops. Mohammed approaches me after recognizing my BRF t-shirt and asks if I need help. He is bored, like most people here, as there is not much to do apart from playing the waiting game.

Mohammed is volunteering to be my translator. He knows the camp well since he has been here for a year. Whilst he accompanies me around the camp, he tells me his story.
He had studied engineering at a university in Damascus before he fled Syria with his brother and his brother’s pregnant wife due to the Syrian conflict. Despite having encountered life-threatening situations on his way to the EU, the first time Mohammed laid eyes on Moria he was as shocked as I was by the living conditions. He stays in a small tent with several other men. “People live almost on top of each other. I hardly have any personal space. Others have it even worse. My neighbors live with 6 other people—and soon a baby—in a leaky tent of 1.5 by 2 meters.”

My neighbours live with 6 other people—and soon a baby—in a leaky tent of 1.5 by 2 meters.

Drenched to the bone
Moria was built for 3000 people; however, at the moment more than 15.500 people are staying there, more than five times the capacity. Mohammed shows me the few toilets and showers, as well as the food line where people sometimes have to wait for several hours. He tells me about the lack of safety by pointing out the fighting between Arabs and Afghanis. (Mohammed’s brother was recently stabbed in the leg as he was sleeping in his tent.)

The weather also plays a role in the refugees’ suffering. Mohammed explains: “In the winter it is freezing, raining, and storming a lot. We have no electricity and a lot of tents and
containers are leaking. We are often drenched to the bone. In order to warm up a bit, we make bonfires out of plastic bottles due to a lack of wood. Some people make bonfires in their tents, despite knowing the dangers of it. I’ve seen accidents with fire, but you also want to get warm.”

Between these gates people have to stay in line for several hours a day, to wait for their food.

Some people make bonfires in their tents, despite knowing the dangers of it. I’ve seen accidents with fire, but you also want to get warm.

Mohammed’s brother and sister-in-law often struggle to maintain hope: “But we are too ashamed to die in Europe after all we have been through. It is hard to stay hopeful and believe in a better future. Not everyone is coping well with living in Moria. A lot of our friends are depressed, cut themselves or get drunk to deal with the situation.”

Sleighs of cardboard
Mohammed tries hard to stay positive: “Fortunately, I also see hope, like the children playing with sleighs made of cardboard, and small businesses like coffee corners, barbers and clothing shops that are popping up. For me personally volunteering makes me happy, because I can help other people.” I am amazed by the strength that people like Mohammed exhibit to stay hopeful. BRF aims to increase this strength and improve coping strategies by providing a school for children, English- and computer classes for adults and a library.

 I am amazed by the strength that people like Mohammed exhibit to stay hopeful.

BRF also organizes mental wellbeing workshops. Many of the refugees are at first skeptical of the efficacy of such classes, but others faithfully attend them for months. In one such workshop, the participants hold hands and sway to the music, their eyes closed. It is an oddly intimate exercise that requires a great deal of trust but eventually leads to feelings of relaxation and wellbeing. It reflects the power of treating refugees as people and acknowledging the inhumane position they are in. 

Help is desperately needed
This position must change! In the bitter cold, I was welcomed everywhere in Moria and invited for tea, dinner, conversation, and to join around the fire to get warm. They accepted me in their community, which made me feel even more ashamed of the attitude that Europe has towards refugees. It is because of this attitude that people are stuck in Moria. Greece does not have the capacity to offer all the thousands of refugees a place to stay in humane circumstances. Therefore, to change the dire circumstances people like Mohammed need your help desperately. You can aid in several ways; by donating money to / or volunteering for an NGO, or more importantly, by raising awareness among the European citizens. By showing that we care for these people, we can pressure our governments to take action. These people deserve to be treated as decent human beings.

Disclaimer: This article describes the true story of three refugees in refugee camp Moria and is written with their permission. Albeit, I have created the fictitious name Mohammed to protect their anonymity.

Text and photo’s: Esmée Pluijmers

Stichting Bootvluchteling vraagt aandacht voor tekortschietende zorg voor minderjarige vluchtelingen.

We sound the alarm: care for underage refugees in Moria falls seriously short

Logbook: Medical Shift

Driving home for Christmas

I´m sitting in an airport hall in Athens as Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas blares out of the speakers. I put in my earplugs. The only thing I can think about is 18-year-old Congolese Jack, who saw his parents and sister being murdered in front of his eyes. I still see him sitting in front of me in the clinic, ticking two stones together, suffering from mutism, abruptly turning his head from one side to the other as he catches sight of his visual hallucinations. I prescribed antipsychotics for a few days and referred him to MSF (Médecins sans Frontières), who have a trauma-psychiatrist employed in their team. Only the most severe cases can be seen by this psychiatrist and it can take a few weeks. In the meantime, the only thing I could offer is to see Jack every 3 days to monitor his situation. The call for my flight brings me back to the airport hall: I’m going home for Christmas, but Jack has to call his tent in Moria his home for probably the next year. In reality, Moria is a home to no-one.

This last month, I´ve been working as a junior medical doctor for the Boat Refugee Foundation, a Dutch NGO providing both medical and psychosocial care for the inhabitants of camp Moria, one of Europe’s biggest refugee camps situated on the island of Lesvos in Greece. Originally set up as a transit camp for a maximum of 3100 refugees with a maximum length of stay of 48 hours, it currently houses around 7000 inhabitants who can expect to live in the camp for many months or even a few years. All the words I could use to describe the place – inhumane, appalling, depressing, tragic –  don’t do it justice. The muddy paths; the tents leaking and often housing more than 10 people; the cold wind blowing through the blankets that serve as a door; the open sewage;  the people waiting for hours in the food-line in something that looks like a cage: it’s a demoralizing place.

Together with a group of doctors, nurses, support crew and translators, I´ve worked in a medical clinic, covering the evening hours to make sure medical help is always available to the inhabitants of the camp. Around a hundred patients visit the clinic every night, mainly presenting with primary care or psychiatric problems. It gives courage to know that a group of, often young, doctors and nurses, see the importance of working for the most vulnerable people living in this world, and although we all work in the camp for relatively short time periods, we work like a well-oiled machine. As soon as we are driving out of the camp at midnight, we share our frustrations about how little we can offer most of these patients but, despite all the limitations, we are flexible, inventive and we often find ways to improve our care. Despite our efforts, sometimes the circumstances of Moria can’t be beaten: the best ‘management’ would be ‘discharge’ out of Moria, which is impossible.  

Another day in the clinic: at the fall of night, the first patients with panic attacks get brought in. Often they are the patients from the unaccompanied minor section; a boy from Afghanistan this time – crying and hyperventilating.  I´m not experienced in psychiatry; I haven´t learned much about the techniques of handling an anxiety attack, but I trust the communication skills I’ve acquired over the last years: I ask him to focus on his breathing, I emphasize that he is in a safe place in the clinic. Slowly tatters of his story fill the room. I hear terms like ‘encircled’, ‘Taliban’, ‘beaten’. I notice the scars on his head and his back. It grabs me by the throat. After an extensive talk, I refer him to the stress relief and mental health classes, also run by the Boat Refugee Foundation. I’m relieved that the next patient comes in with just a rash – another case of scabies.

In March 2016, the European Union struck a deal with Turkey. A deal set up to battle migration by sea from Turkey to the Greek Islands, by sending all ‘irregular’ refugees back to Turkey. Whether a refugee falls into the category ‘irregular’, would have to be decided by an individual asylum procedure in Greece. In exchange for accommodating the refugees, Turkey received EU money and the negotiations regarding the accession of Turkey to the EU were resumed. For every migrant Turkey would take back, the EU agreed to settle a Syrian refugee in one of their countries. But Greece is suffering under an enormous amount of refugees. The asylum process is long and treacly and there’s a shear lack of human resources and adequate facilities. The amount of refugees transferred back to Turkey is only a fraction of what was projected. The deal has caused the borders of Greece to close and turned Moria into an end-station for all migrants crossing the Aegean Sea. In the meantime, although at a lower number than at the height of the crisis, the boats keep coming: so far in 2018, almost 31000 migrants have arrived the Greek Islands.

I find it hard to describe how I felt while I worked in the camp and now that I’m home. Frustration and anger dominate at one time: frustration about the pretention of some political parties that the EU-Turkey deal is successful. Then I feel the guilt for having had to send back a young couple with their 5-month-old twins, who lost most of their belongings in the sea, back into the cold. At other times I feel ashamed that this is the EU I live in, ashamed about the fact that I get irritated when there’s no hot water coming out of my shower while in 0 degrees Moria hot showers are non-existent. I feel discouraged for the 10-year-old girl who always accompanied her depressed mother to the clinic, she hasn’t been going to school during the last year. If no action is taken there’s a lost generation growing up in this camp.

Against the pure despair you can often read in the refugees eyes, there are also glimmers of hope: the resilience of some refugees trying to improve the conditions of the camp; the Cameroonian lady who feels empowered after having followed our mental health classes; the amount of inspirational people working for the various NGOs on Lesvos; the help we receive from our translators, refugees themselves, who not only translate but also offer psychological support to their fellow citizens; the refugees taking the bus out of Moria, one step closer to a human life somewhere in Europe. These stories work as silver linings in a sea of despair.

The stories above are just a few stories. There are 7000 more stories to tell from the people that currently live in Moria. They are all searching for a brighter future; I can only hope their next ‘home’ is a better one.

Text: Manon Heldens
Photos: Bertina Kramer

Running for Lesvos

Almost a year has passed since I worked as a medical volunteer for Boat Refugee Foundation on Lesvos Island, Greece, to provide medical support for refugees in dire need.

This summer, Lesvos reached the dubious record of hosting over 10.000 refugees, where the 2.500 refugees of last year did not even have acces to basic human rights: enough food/water, sanitation and basic medical care.

That’s why I took up the challenge to run the half marathon of Ghent, Belgium on October 28th, 2018. This challenge was no comparison to the hardship refugees face on their challenge to find a safe shelter, a new home. But it was an opportunity to provide some relief!

These results definitely exceeded my expectations!

The fundraiser collected € 1.050; far more than the € 500 I initially set out for. What’s more, I ran the half marathon a lot faster than expected (1 hour 47 minutes vs. simply trying to finish).

Boat Refugee Foundation supported me with fundraising tips and flyers, as well as a T-shirt, which helped for the fundraiser as well as BRF to become more visible.

I’m proud of the good job BRF is doing in trying to provide some relief to fellow people in dire need.

I’m also proud of my well-wishers and donors, for caring about these people.

Many, many thanks, it is appreciated!

Rick van Uum
GP trainee / former BRF volunteer

Interview with support crew volunteer Helen

Every night the medical team rushes to Moria, to take care of the medical issues that people from Moria experience. Together with a team of around 5 to 7 medical volunteers and 2 support crew volunteers, refugees are helped with acute problems, injuries, wounds, panic attacks, other psychological issues, and regular medical needs. An important part of the medical mission in the evenings is the managing of people who have to wait. This part of the medical mission is called: ‘support crew’.

Every night two volunteers stand at the gate of the medical cabin of Boat Refugee Foundation. These volunteers talk to the refugees in line who wait for medical treatment. I talk to one of them: Helen O’Dowd (33).  Helen came over to Lesbos for 6 weeks to assist the medical team. Striking enough, Helen herself does not have a medical background. She is a secondary school teacher, specialized in English, history and coaching children with a poor socioeconomic background with their social skills. Helen tells me: “I work as a secondary teacher for youngsters aged 12-18. I work with those who come from a poor socioeconomic background, and help them to develop socially and educationally”.

Helen came to work at Lesbos in 2017, at that time she was a part of the psychosocial (PSS) team of BRF. She really liked working for the PSS team, especially given her background. But after she gained experience as a crowd controller at a different organisation, Helen decided to return in 2018  to BRF as a support crew volunteer. Helen explains to me: “The PSS team is great, and the work is amazing. However, I really wanted to add my experience as a crowd controller and my background with working with young people who have social and emotional problems to the medical team”. Her social skills and experience create a valuable bonus to the work of the medical team at Moria.

But what exactly does a support crew volunteer do? Helen explains to me that it is really about managing people. The support crew volunteers try to keep the balance between urgent medical matters and medical needs that can wait until the morning medics arrive. Even though there is a lot of medical assistance and help at Moria during the day, there is a big line and crowd in front of the medical cabin at Moria at night. Moria is a place where there is only one toilet for every 76 people. Where there is almost no space to relax. People sleep during the day because they feel safer to sleep when it is light. No wonder why there is so much medical need at night.

But agitation rises at night, especially after dark. Many children are brought in to the medical cabin around nine o’clock with Harara (fever), Helen explains. Furthermore, a lot of people in Moria have to deal with psychological problems. The start of the evening and the darkness of the night worsens their condition.

Translators from Moria help Helen communicate with the big crowd in front of the gate of the medical cabin. Because people from Moria differ in their cultural background, there are a lot of languages used in the camp. Helen explains that the work of these volunteer translators from Moria is indispensable and might be more important than what she does. The volunteer translators are part of the communities inside camp Mora, which makes them trustworthy. The translators allow Helen to communicate with the patients and the crowd in their own language which is invaluable. She can explain why they are or are not going to receive help. Helen explains that it’s about creating a friendly environment and using empathy and affection. She doesn’t mind the big crowd and the groups of men who demand help: “I am a small girl, so I am not intimidating for them. Also, their culture is really respectful of women. I always try to listen carefully and give them time and attention. Then I explain to them why I need to make the choice to let them through or have to make them wait”. Saying no is not hard for her. She says that she doesn’t say no to the person, but selects together with the medical volunteers who has the most urgent medical problem. When you take the time to explain this to the people with the help of a translator, people are more willing to listen and respect you and the decision. “Because we respect them.

At the time I conduct the interview with Helen, she only has to do one more shift before heading home. I ask her what she has learned the most during her time in Moria as a support crew volunteer. She answers that respect has to be earned, not just given. You have to show respect to people, to their culture. Take time and try to comfort them using their own language. Also, Helen says, is Moria not just despair and tragedy. Through the darkness, Helen learned that there is also a lot of fun in the camp. “Moria is my home from home. I have family here now. I will come back for sure.”

Text: Roëlle de Bruin-Boonstra
Photos: Roëlle de Bruin-Boonstra (photo 1), Kenny Karpov (photo 2 en 3)