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)