In February 2017, I arrived on the island of Lesvos to start medical voluntary work with the Boat Refugee Foundation. I received a warm welcome from the other volunteers on my first night, and the next day I headed to my first shift; I was apprehensive, not knowing what to expect.
I arrived with the rest of the medical team (another doctor, a nurse, and a crowd controller), and we made our way into Moria camp towards our clinic (a portacabin which had two clinic rooms inside). After a brief tour and explanation of the process of seeing patients, the interpreters (who are refugees living in the camp, hired by BRF) popped up; Ben*, a 21 year old Syrian refugee who had been living in Moria for eleven months and Steve*, a 26 year old refugee from Afghanistan. They both shook my hand, welcoming me to the team, and started chatting away with the rest of the volunteers.
I saw my first patients; although I was initially nervous and unsure of what kind of problems were going to walk through the door, the POCs (person of concern) came in with lots of standard primary care problems; coughs, colds, rashes, headache and tummy pain. As patients from different countries came in, I met the rest of the interpreters; Matt*, a cheery 21 year old from Afghanistan, Waheed*, a friendly 21 year old from Syria, and Harry*, a 28 year old from Algeria who spoke both French and Arabic. The interpreters greeted the patients warmly and immediately put them at ease, and during my first shift helpfully pointed out the location of various medicines and equipment as I found my bearings in the clinic room.
Working with these interpreters was a vastly different to my experience of working with interpreters in the UK. In England, working with interpreters usually involves talking into a phone with two receivers while a bored sounding person at the end of the line translates the history. Occasionally, translators come to the ward clutching time slips, and sit in an awkward silence next to the patient, speaking only to ask when the consultant would come so they can get their attendance forms signed and leave as quickly as possible.
The Moria interpreters were completely different; from the moment the patient stepped into the cabin they established a rapport with them, asked questions with interest and responded appropriately, and while I was writing notes and packaging medications they would chat together.
Text: Jessica Agbamu
*Names changed for refugees’ privacy
Photo: Bas Bakkenes