48 kilo’s, seven teeth and one broad smile

The camp looks peaceful today. It is quiet and almost cosy with the red glow of the wintry evening sun on the tents and containers. The first patients have been seen: backache, sleeping problems, sore throat… Then the next patient enters. Two modest eyes in a meagre face look at me, somewhat anxiously. I realize that his appearance scares me; I hide this quickly. This man is unbelievably skinny. The cold makes him shiver, even in our heated medical container. He has brought a friend along to translate.

‘He come for pain.’ Pain, a toothache. Unfortunately he is not the only one. Tooth decay is one of the most common problems we see here. It causes intense sharp pain to many people in the camp, which refrains them from sleeping. Unfortunately for this man the pain is so severe that it also refrains him from eating. Soup is possible, as well as bread that he crumbles between his finger and mixes with his tea so that he doesn’t have to chew. I wish I could give him painkillers. I ask the man to open his mouth. Seven rickety teeth stare back at me. This has been a problem for a long time but a couple of months in the camp with its limited facilities deteriorated the situation quickly. I wish so badly that a dental team could come to the camp quickly! I repeat the teeth hygiene (brushing the teeth, flossing, etc.) and give painkillers for a day, according to our protocol. But what to do with this weight? The scale shows 48 kilo. It is a chronic problem, that’s why it is very important to be careful when increasing his calories-intake. The balance in the body of such patients can be heavily disturbed with sudden increases, which may have dangerous consequences. Preferably we would monitor this in his blood, but that’s impossible here in the camp.

That is why we do it really carefully. Every day we increase his daily intake a tiny little bit. We add foods that do not require to be chewed on: porridge, baby food… Like this a week passes by. He visits our medical cabin daily, together with his translator-friend. We evaluate how it’s going and see how we can best continue. It’s beautiful to establish a relationship with this shy man, and to see colour return on his pale face. At day seven he enters again, with a modest pride. On his arm he carries a little boy: his son. He looks better than I’ve ever seen him, and a little stronger.

It is incredible how resilient a human can be. This man lost so much, not only his 25 teeth and lots of weight. He also lost his house, his friends and the place where his memories were made. Yet he has an admirable strength to move on. I offer to weight his little son to monitor his growth, but curiously he steps on the scale first. The pointer of the scale moves. We look at each other… 49! It’s a small step, but secretly it feels like a victory. We will continue, step by step, until we will reach our goal. He smiles broadly at me. And exactly such a generous smile is the reason why I love it so much to be here. I hope his steps continue to go forward, that he and his son can leave this camp quickly and reach a destination, wherever it may be.

Text: Evelyn Brakema
Photo: Bas Bakkenes
*The person on the picture is not the man in the article.

A cup of tea with beautiful stories

The colors of the sky gradually change from light to dark blue. A darkness that in any moment will soon be filled with the sparkling light of the bright, white shining stars. The teakettle is steaming in our milk room; the place where we distribute baby necessities and tea every day. It is tea time and many people bring their cup to us to drink some tea and to have a chit chat.

A young man walks towards us with his empty cup. “Half, please”. Yes, I think, by now I know how you like to drink your tea. I walk out of the milkroom to stand outside, next to him with my own blue cup filled with tea. The young man promised to show me the mural he created. On the screen of his telephone I see a colorfully striped world map in yellow and blue, painted by him on the wall behind his tent. “My painting makes me forget my surroundings and reminds me of all the beauty in the world”, he tells me while we are standing in between laughing kids and young men that are playing soccer.

Thinking of the camp, I see a place where hands from far and hands from near work together in the camp to change it into a place where sometimes people can be themselves again, regardless of the harsh circumstances. Thinking of the camp, I see a place where the barbed wire on the tall fences are surrounded by color and paintings, I see a place where people cry and people laugh, I see a place where people living in cold tents can sometimes be an artist again. Thinking of the camp, I see a place where NGO’s and camp habitants work together to make the life in the camp as endurable as possible, I see a place where interpreters that live in the camp make the work of our doctors possible. Thinking of the camp, I see a place where our tea initiates the sharing of stories.

As anthropologist in action on Samos, I teach to minors in a shelter, I distribute baby necessities in the camp and I listen and try to understand the stories of the humans that are there in the camp.

Text: Rozemijn Aalpoel
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

The journey we call ‘life’

The average life expectancy on this planet is 71 years old. This means that if we’re lucky we’re on this planet for a grand total of 0.00000158% of its history. By the numbers, the insignificance of our lives is truly spectacular. Having said that the beauty of life as we all experience it is that it can provide us with experiences that transcend this time. These moments are indelible in our minds and in our hearts and with that can influence future generations for many years to come.

Two weeks. That’s the amount of time I spent in Samos, Greece working with the Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF) medical team as a translator integrating what I’ve learned throughout my life as an Iraqi Syrian and my training in medical school at the University College Dublin. I’m under no delusions of grandeur two weeks is a small amount of time. I knew coming in I couldn’t move the over 1700 people living in Samos to their desired destination. I couldn’t move the over 700 people living in tents in temperatures that would approach freezing at night into a warm home. I couldn’t fix the rain that I saw nearly everyday that would drench these people’s clothes, blankets, papers, and most importantly their dignity and self worth. I couldn’t fix the holes in those tents that put many of these refugees in danger of hypothermia to the point they would start fires inside those very tents even at the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. There are over 60,000 refugees in Greece some that have been here for over 7 months. There are children whose first memories in life will be growing up in a pseudo-prison playing soccer outside of our medical cabin. Simple math tells us that if just 5 countries accepted 12,000 refugees this problem in Greece would be solved. The Big House at my alma mater Michigan holds 110,000 every Saturday in the fall for a football game. I reject the notion that this is an unsolvable problem. Fear is the only hindrance to solving this humanitarian crisis.

In 2007 and 2008 I visited Aleppo, Syria. I walked the streets, visited it’s famous market, toured it’s beautiful castle, and made lifelong friends many of whom have fled through the vary path that I found myself volunteering in. In 2009, I visited Iraq for the first time. I saw the walls that segregated many of the neighborhoods in Baghdad making what used to be a 15 minute drive to school for my cousins into an hour and a half. In 2011 I returned in the summer and saw people living in over 60 plus degree Celsius with no electricity. I sat in a cab with a one-liter bottle of ice and watched it melt in less than 10 minutes. I visited Babylon and in pure blissful silence watched the sunset over the Euphrates and wondered how could a place this beautiful have so much pain. I had those same feelings as I watched the sunset over the mountains of Samos outside of the camp on the last day of my service.

Following in the footsteps of many others, my mission in Samos was to come and put a smile on people’s faces and give them some semblance of hope that things will get better. My experiences helped in doing that but what I didn’t account for was the wonderful people I met along the way that helped me succeed in my mission. With all the pain and suffering in Samos the one hope I was able to take away was that there were people here that wanted to make the same difference in these people’s lives that I wanted to make. With their help, I was able to forge a moment in my life that will transcend time and be indelible in my mind and heart.

Therefore “Charlie”, aka me, cannot in good conscience end this post without thanking my angels of BRF. To the medical team, specifically Lisanne De Graaff, Susanne Leenders, Willemijn Hollander, Arne Holman, and Christiane Deflandre, you’ve personally done more for me as a future physician than I could have ever imagined. Our experience together will transcend time. Thank you so much for your service to my people. To the milk, tea, and most importantly juice team, specifically Dieuwertje de Graaff, Zoe Roberts, and Rozemijn Aalpoel, who knew googly fruit juice packets could provide so many smiles at such an agonizing time. You’re passion and service to the refugees and specifically the children will be remembered. To the captains that kept our boat going, Frederieke van Dongen and Corien Tiemersma, your will to serve was my personal reminder that the spirit of Fern Holland and my Aunt Salwa lives on in both of you. To the countless of Samaritans, volunteers, and citizens of Samos the world may have forgotten you but I will never forgot you. You’ve done more for these people than their governments have for them. Finally to the refugees I met from all over the world. Cameroon, Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria are all represented here. I am humbled that I was able to experience in a small way the journey you’ve all went through. Your stories will live on in you and all the other people you touch throughout your lives. There will be better times ahead.

Let’s never forget the most important numeral of all 1. We are one human race and no matter what our differences are we are all one family traveling through this journey we call life seeking those indelible moments that we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Warm Regards,

Salam Al-Omaishi
Email: salam.al-omaishi@ucdconnect.ie
MB BCh BAO University College Dublin (Expected 2019)
MS BME University of Michigan

For more information on Fern Holland’s war read Elizabeth Rubin’s New York Times Account found in the link below:


Text: Salam Al-Omaishi
Photo: Bas Bakkenes

Special moments on Samos

After a slight shortage of volunteers over the festive season, the team has now resumed children’s activities. Art, face-painting, puzzles, reading, and bracelet-making are all on the agenda and so far kids have left with beaming faces (sometimes with butterflies on them). The teaching program for minors is also going well from discussions about Facebook privacy to lessons on pizza-style fractions.

The hardest news to report is a summary of all the interactions I have had during my time here. They left me with impressions that I cannot easily express. I’m grateful to the Kurdish karate teacher for showing us some expert moves and even teaching us a couple. He is one of a group of dependable and indefatigable interpreters and general helpers. Included in this group is a gentleman who has been waiting to join his children in Austria for over half a year. He is alone here. It is always a pleasure when he comes to chat with us and asks to have the very last cup of tea of the night. I also remember one moment when I was walking back through town to the car in the rain and passed three refugees. One of them offered me his raincoat and I couldn’t believe it. That kindness is madness but so special at the same time. I hope one day someone actually does accept his coat when he offers it and it won’t matter so much.

Text: Zoe Roberts
Photo: Stockfoto

Similarities and differences

Last summer I taught some lessons in the shelter for unaccompanied minors on cultural diversity. The topics were homosexuality and gender roles. Definitely interesting topics to discuss with 16-18 year old boys from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last week I went to Samos again, but this time I volunteered in the refugee camp, where 2000 people stay. Every day I saw the same faces. The people who hang around our milk and chai cabin are those who are looking for social contact. And maybe also the ones that don’t have family on Samos. The impression that really stuck with me were not the cultural differences, which are so often stressed in this overculturalized refugee debate, to me the similarities stand out more.

Some people are friendly, others are a bit less friendly. Some are very modest, others have a big mouth. Some are very social and talkative, others are very shy. Some seem depressed, others are joking around all the time. Some people have a lot of knowledge, others have less to tell. Some are really proud and confident, others are very uncertain. Some show their emotions, others are more closed. Some are afraid of the future, others are very positive. Some have very strict ideas, others are more open-minded. Some have big ambitions, and others are a bit lazy. And if you treat them well, they treat you well. There even were some hipster-refugees. Can you imagine how hard it is to be continue being a hipster while being in a refugee camp? And they even discriminate within their camp-society, like we do. You hear the Syrian children say: ‘African no good’ or ‘Afghan no good’. Apparently discrimination is something we should unlearn ourselves as well as the refugees.

I think the people in the refugee camp on Samos are pretty comparable to the people I know in the Netherlands. The biggest difference I think is that we have freedom to move around, more rights that protect us, a roof above our heads, live close to our families, have jobs and the chance to study, the option to choose what our future looks like, and probably experienced less awful things in our lives. To me that’s the biggest difference.

Text: Marcella van Dongen
Photo: Marcella van Dongen

The Work

The other night we were involved in a difficult medical situation at the camp. It was a problem we actually saw coming but, despite our best efforts to prepare for it, we couldn’t find the medicine we needed anywhere on the island. Then, at the end of a largely uneventful shift, the patient arrived in the arms of her father.

I will never forget the events of that night nor the sense of purpose and unity in our team. We medics tended to the child and, together with our interpreter, pieced together the story. Our coordinator and co-coordinator managed the considerable red-tape around the transfer to the hospital, finessing the sensitive relationships with the decision-makers in the camp. In the end, everything worked-out, and we left with our little patient for the local hospital.

We spent the next day discussing what we could do to ensure the girl and her family receive the help they needed. Texts and phone calls went back and forth, ideas and updates. There were clarifications as to what we can and can’t do, the various sensibilities we needed to consider, and the risks involved in ignoring these realities. Later that afternoon I got a text from our coordinator, home sick with a bad cold, that the girl would hopefully be heading to Athens the next day. She had also been working on a back-up plan to get the family into a hotel room, as they were currently living in one of the small tents crowded among the rows of containers.

So much depends on not letting-up, not giving-in to the frustrations here. I happened to be the first doctor this family saw when they arrived in camp. There was no mistaking the urgency in this father’s eyes: they lost the girl’s medication on the journey here, and he was worried. I’ve never felt so much responsibility as a doctor—and I’ve never been part of a team that worked so hard to obtain even a bare minimum of the care any one of us would expect for our loved ones. Things have fortunately moved forward for this family, but not without new roadblocks and daily set-backs.

This is my last day here. It is hard to let go. The night of the emergency, after finally getting the girl to the hospital, my colleague and I went out for a drink. I was feeling elated, but looking back now I think I simply felt relieved. When we got our beers I proposed a toast. It surprised me because I hadn’t planned anything, it just came out: “to the work!”

Text: Scott Nelson – Doctor
Foto: Stockfoto BRF

Snow and a wind chill factor of -9 degrees in Samos

After having a good start of the week, with blue skies and sun, the weather started changing. A large storm woke everyone up yesterday night: the amount of rain was immense and lightning and thunder made it even more dramatic. One of our common translators had the water level rise to above the pallet of his tent, so a part of his belongings are soaked. Even though the fact very many refugees have wet clothes, the upcoming weather will possibly be even more of a problem. It will start freezing in Samos, with a wind chill factor of -9 degrees Celcius. It is difficult for BRF to prepare for the cold, with the limited sources available. There are a couple of (emergency) warmth blankets available, tea and hot water (bottles) will be distributed throughout the evening/night, and a while ago some heaters were installed next to the medical container.

In the medical container, the team providing health care (and also the ones providing the educational program and milk/tea/diaper service) now consists of a great mix of backgrounds and experiences. Working together on only a couple of square metres makes it very necessary to work as a team, be flexible and helpful. Also the translators are of great value of the service for patients. ‘Simple’ colds and headaches can be helped by using hands and feet to communicate, but more difficult medical problems require a proper communication. Some refugees believe that the arrival in Europe, immediately implies receiving better health care than in their home country – not realising that at the camp, the possibilities are still limited. Luckily, BRF can refer patients to Medin for a referral to the local hospital. The waiting time however can sometimes add up to a couple of months for the non acute problems. The BRF medical team now consists of two Dutch doctors, a Belgian-Italian nurse and a arabic-speaking medical student from the USA. Having such an enthousiastic team creates great energy to face the often chaotic, demanding and intense evenings at the medical container!

The video below is recorded by Frederieke van Dongen and will show you the terrible weather in Samos.


Do you want to help? Support our team at www.boatrefugee.com

Tekst: Lisanne de Graaff – Arts op Samos
Video: Frederieke van Dongen – Coördinator op Samos

5 months later

Stepping into the RIC (official name for the refugee camp in Samos) for the first time in five months brought back many memories, both good and difficult. Though the children I knew had left, I was greeted with the same boundless energy and intensity from the children there now that I had received during the three weeks I was a volunteer for BRF over the summer. The camp looked different because an artist had worked with members of the RIC to create beautiful murals on the walls, bringing some much need color to the once grey bricks.

When I left the RIC in July, I went straight into a master’s program in my hometown of Cambridge, MA. By straight in, I mean that less than 10 hours after landing in the U.S., I was seated in orientation on my first day. In hindsight, not a smart move. Though I was physically present, my mind was still on Samos, with the people I had grown to care about very deeply. It didn’t seem fair that I could leave and they couldn’t. That I could go home to a warm bed every night and they wouldn’t. But most importantly, that I felt hope for my future and they didn’t.

This weighed on me heavily during my time at school. I knew that I needed to come back as soon as possible. After turning in my last final for the semester, I got on a plane with three 70 lb bags full of winter coats and infant formula thanks to the generosity of my classmates and synagogue.

While I was back home, I kept in touch with a few families who had become friends during my time on the island. As a result, I knew a little bit about what to expect, but was still shocked when I returned to the RIC. For one thing, it is very cold. When I was here in July, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than sleeping in a tent in 90-100 degree temperatures. Now, I long for those days. For a refugee living in tent, there is essentially no place where you can sit inside and get warm. Imagine being either cold or freezing all day, every day.

In addition, while the RIC was already overpopulated by several hundred people, arrivals increased even more and they needed to expand the space to put tents. While I was gone, they opened an “extension” where tents were put on pallets on completely uneven, muddy grounds full of safety hazards including a giant hole one could easily fall in during the pitch black nights. At night, people are huddled around fires. In other RICs, these fires have gotten out of control causing injury and even a death. It was very difficult to see this part of the RIC.
Over the past few days, I have seen a few familiar faces, but for the most part, everyone I know has moved on to other camps, Athens and even other parts of Europe. At night, I close my eyes and pray that wherever the next stop on their journey is, it is a step towards a better life. A warm bed, a life of freedom, and a life full of hope.

Do you want to help? Support us at www.boatrefugee.com

Text: Samantha Joseph (volunteer Boat Refugee Foundation)
Photo: (stockfoto BRF)

Samos – Story of a refugee

“I escaped alone. My family is back home. On that little boat, I was the only boy and the rest were grown men with long beards. I was scared. They gave me the life jacket and told me to pray. I didn’t stop praying until we got to Samos.” He has an intense look on his face, his eyes are sharp, and his voice is clear.

“When did you arrive?”
“8 months ago to this horrible camp.” He gazes down and lowers his voice. “Animals live better here in Samos.”
“Where do you want to go?” “To Germany where my cousin lives.“
He gazes into the abyss and asked: “Do you know how much longer I need to wait?” “Sorry…I don’t know either” was my muted response.

What I really wanted to say is “Sorry that at 17 you are all alone, strangers have become your family, this horrible camp has become your home, and your future is on hold… You are too young. You don’t deserve this!”

Samos hotspot

Way too much crowd
So dirty, so hot, so loud
Basic humanity in need
Dignity left in speed

Boredom all around
Despair the only sound
Waiting forever to leave
Drowning in a lot of grief

Their future left behind
The past fucking their mind
Shown and hidden scars
Shattered freedom behind bars

Many prayers every day
Asking to end this stay
Just to pick up their lives
Children, husbands and wives

What tomorrow will bring?
Nobody knows a damn thing
Time very slowly passes away
Cursed actors in a horrible play

So why do we neglect this all
Why do we ignore their call
Realise it’s not that far away
Next time you’ll have to pray

Act now, no reason to wait
Act now, before it’s too late
No action is an eternal disgrace
For us all, so-called human race

By Richard Zegers