As a volunteer with Medical Volunteers International, an organisation working across three areas in Greece to help bring medical care to the refugees there, I have first hand experience of the problems faced by refugees.
I volunteered in Thessaloniki as a nurse and treated wounds mostly caused by long-distance walking and burns from vehicles. The situation there is desperate with sometimes 200 people being medically treated by the team in the car park and food centre daily.
Each day we have at least 1 coordinator, 2 doctors and 3 nurses along with 1 or 2 translators from the community. The majority of the patients are Syrian, Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi, Algerian and Moroccan. Some have walked for weeks and weeks to get to Greece, some have come by sea and others are stuck here due to political situations within the EU.
We also help out during the week at the refugee camp supporting the European Union Humanitarian Aid medical centre. This centre is always busy with families with a lot of young children being treated here.
Medical supplies that we use in our car park and food centre are mostly donated. Supplies are short and the situation is growing more and more desperate.
Whilst volunteering there during the summer, I documented some of the things I saw and heard from the refugees in Greece. They are written in real time and I have left them like this rather than putting them into past tense as hopefully you can hear some of my emotions as I wrote them.
These are their stories, their experiences, their lives and stories that they have given me consent to tell.
The Old Morocan Man.
This old man arrived into our care 10 days ago. He was tired and thirsty and had bad wounds to his legs and old scarring to his hands. The first thing we did was to give him a seat and some food and water.
This man is from Morocco. He has been walking over the mountains for over 1 month to get to Greece from Turkey. Along the way, he fell down so many times as he was so tired. When he fell, he took the skin off his hands and shins.
His hands have healed but are very sore from the dry skin. I had some hand moisturising cream in my camper van. He was so grateful for this small gesture that he kissed me on the forehead very unexpectedly. It is overwhelming how such a small act of kindness can mean so much.
The team have been caring for his leg wounds for the past week. They started off very macerated and weeping. With daily cleaning and dressings, they have come a long way.
This old man is stronger now. He always smiles whenever he sees us. His wounds are doing well but his story is not over yet. He still has a long way before he is truly safe. He will most likely have to continue walking through Albania, Bosnia and Croatia. But for now, he is safe under the care of the Medical Volunteers International team.
The Teenager With The Broken Arm
This story is again one about crossing borders and like many, it is a really sad one but also a life-changing one.
A teenager arrived at the car park clinic. He wasn’t a patient of mine as a nurse but saw the doctors who are part of the MVI team. He told us his story.
He was in a van run by a people smuggler in Northern Macedonia when the police gave chase. The smuggler panicked and jumped out of the moving vehicle and died. People smuggling comes with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison so I guess he really didn’t want to get caught.
The van crashed and all the refugees in the back had serious injuries and there were many broken bones. This young Afghanistani teenager broke his arm along with other injuries.
In Northern Macedonia, he had his arm put in a splint that was meant to be used for just one day – that was a month ago. He was removed by the authorities from Northern Macedonia, back to Greece, the last place he had been registered as a refugee.
He needed an operation when it first happened. He now needs his arm breaking and resetting but he doesn’t have the money for this. So the likelihood is that he is going to lose the use of his arm meaning his future is going to be a lot harder than it would have been.
He also has to deal with the psychological impact of that night. We see many refugees who have gone through terrifying situations like this one, self-harm or take over-the-counter addictive medication to try and ease the pain. I really hope that he remains focused on his goal and makes it through Eastern Europe in a safe way.
The Young Man With Blisters.
Most of the refugees we treat in the Medical Volunteers International clinic have blisters. This is from walking for days and days. Some walk all day and night for 5 days at a time to cross borders, some walk for 30 days, it depends on which route they take. One day I asked a man how far he had just walked and all he knew is that he had been walking for 112 hours. He couldn’t put this into days or distance. He had just been counting down the hours.
Meet this young man from Afghanistan. He had walked so far that his shoes had caused large blisters on the soles of his feet. This young man most likely walked over the mountains from Iran to Turkey and then again from Turkey to Greece. He was carried to the clinic by friends.
It was that bad that the doctors working for the team had to cut away the skin to expose his raw flesh underneath. The wounds completely covered the balls of his feet and some toes. We cleaned his wounds to prevent infection and bandaged his feet trying to add extra padding to the soles of his feet but he still could not apply any pressure.
This left him unable to walk. He was unable to use crutches as the blisters were to both of his feet. He had to wait until the coordinator drove back to the warehouse and picked up a wheelchair kindly donated to use.
We saw him over the weekend and changed his dressings which with our care, were slowly improving. I saw him twice over the weekend as I walked in the city and he always shyly waved at me. However, on Monday he showed up again being carried by his friends, in so much pain. His wheelchair had been taken from him by the authorities.
We do not know why our wheelchair was taken from him. Perhaps as it had a few stickers on from different places and was thought by the “authority” that it was stolen, however, this was legitimately donated to the organisation. Or perhaps he was being discriminated against as a refugee.
So all we could do is re-dress his feet the best we could do. I went and bought him some simple slip-on shoes, a couple of sizes too big and put it on his best foot which still caused him a lot of pain. We lent him some crutches and taught him how to walk with them.
So now the organisation has lost its wheelchair which was much needed to treat the very needy. The ‘Young Man With The Blisters’ has once again lost his transport to and from the places he sleeps and where he can get food. He is once again left in pain and his wounds healing will be delayed due to the trauma of walking.
The Young Man With The Burns
There are many ways to cross borders but all have risks which aren’t just being caught. There are the razor-wire fences that are causing the most horrendous wounds. There is the river which at worst could wash you away and at best cover you in leeches. There is the sea where thousands have lost their lives by drowning and then there is, of course, the road which is how the “Young Man with the burns” came to Greece. I treated him in the clinic set up at a feeding centre here.
Imagine hanging on underneath a bus for at least 600km from Istanbul to Greece? Imagine hanging on as you can feel your flesh burning? Imagine knowing that if you let go then you are going to be severely injured on the road or killed?
This young man is from Algeria, a country that is not deemed by the world as unsafe. However, in 2018 over 11 thousand people fled from Algeria. With 95% of their asylum applications being rejected these people are having to find more and more extreme ways of crossing borders to try and get safe haven in the EU.
These people are not crossing for no reason. How extreme would it have to get for you to hang underneath a bus for 9 hours as your flesh burns? These people deserve medical treatment to treat their wounds regardless of their country and the legal or illegal activities of crossing borders. They have a basic human right not to have this burn turn into a bad infection that can result in loss of limb and loss of life.
The Man Who Was Hit On The Head.
During my time volunteering with MVI, I have heard about discrimination and brutality towards refugees. However, when treating this man, I saw it first hand.
He came to our ambulance clinic to have a wound to his leg treated when I came across his head wound. I noticed some dried blood and a scab, and whilst cleaning it I found a deep wound that was infected.
When we asked him what had happened, he described how he was drinking at a water fountain and was struck over the head by a person who was from a body of people that is really there to protect people. I really cannot say any more than this in fear of compromising the great work MVI do. However, this person really was breaking out of his role by attacking an unarmed person.
Working with the team’s volunteer doctor, we cleaned the wound and inserted a small drain. We had to improvise due to lack of resources, however, in a week of daily dressing changes, we had practically healed this man’s wound and he continued his journey through Eastern Europe.
The Man and the Razor Wire
I have told stories about injuries caused by crossing borders such as burns from hanging on under buses and blisters from walking for weeks. This story is about the razor wire.
It has been suggested to me by a westerner that crossing borders is easy, I can assure you that, for these refugees, it is not. The borders that this westerner had personal experience in crossing are ones in northern Europe where you drive along the road and there are no checks.
The borders that the refugees I met are crossing have fences with razor wire, fast-flowing rivers, mountains or sea. They are patrolled so they have to do these crossings at night and cannot use torches. It isn’t as easy as what you would ever think.
Meet the hands of a middle-aged Egyptian man. This is the first Egyptian I have treated in the Medical Volunteers International clinic. He has his reasons for leaving Egypt which he wishes me to keep to myself.
These hands were sliced on some razor wire whilst crossing the border. It happened over a month ago and he had to tend to his wounds whilst continuing to flee. The deep scars on his hands (which are so much worse than this photo shows) are a constant reminder of his journey.
He also had infected mosquito bites on his legs and blisters to his feet which continued to need medical treatment. He is living in the streets of Thessaloniki which is not the clean environment that is required to heal these leg wounds.
His hope is to get his permanent papers so he can work and stay in Greece. He has a profession and is keen to work hard. His level of English is good. However, it is unlikely due to his country of origin that he will be able to stay permanently without attending the police station regularly and spending a night or two in a cell.
The story is unlikely to end here in Greece for him.
The Females In The Tent (Diavata Refugee Camp).
Each weekday MVI sends at least one volunteer to the Diavata Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. Here there is a clinic that tends to the 1357 residents (exact number unknown) who live in a mixture of prefabs, UNHCR tents, a handfull of summer tents and two buildings. It is thought that 50% of the number counted are children. The clinic here is doing its best but its services are stretched beyond its means.
A group of Afghanistani females, all from the same family attended the clinic. Their signs and symptoms immediately indicated scabies, a mite that lives in your skin and causes horrendous itching. There were another two females who were also reportedly suffering from this problem, so 5 from the same family.
This family is sleeping in one of the tents that is being used as temporary housing for the refugees. The females of the family had all been cuddling together at night to stay warm as the temperature does drop at night here in Greece. The infestation of mites is transmitted through close contact, infested clothing and bedding.
We gave them the treatment of a lotion and tablets to stop the itching. However, their clothes and bedding needed to be treated too. As there are no washing machines available to them and all washing has to be done by hand, it was suggested that they had to throw away their clothes.
Alarmed by this as they had no other clothes to wear and no money to buy new clothes, putting their clothes on a hot wash at the laundrette was also an idea. Again these refugees left their unsafe country with absolutely nothing. They could not even afford a hot wash at the laundrette, let alone getting there by public transport.
So they left with the only option to tie their clothes in plastic bags for 24 hours and then boil them to try and kill the mites. The good thing, however, is that they now have the treatment they need to kill the burrowing mites in their skin thanks to the clinic. Tonight they will huddle together in their tent trying to get some sleep with lotion on their skin to kill the mites.
The Teenager Who Overdosed (Diavata Refugee Camp)
All of my previous stories from my time here volunteering as a nurse with Medical Volunteers International e.V. have talked about treatment of seen problems. None have talked about the unseen problems that people all over the world deal with every single day. Mental health problems.
Fleeing from a country in crisis or at war plus the extreme conditions that happen when you cross borders illegally, really take their toll on the refugees. Add to that, staying for years in an overcrowded, underfunded refugee camp where although some of the accommodation has a reasonable basic standard of living, others are sleeping out in the open or in makeshift tents due to there not being room for them. The staff at the camp are doing their best but without additional space, standards are never going to be good. I saw one person’s paper saying they had been there since 2017! That is 2 years in a refugee camp.
The clinic bed shown in the picture is a “safe place” for one teenage boy. I am not sure of his nationality due to the condition he was in but from his language, we guess he was from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran. He was brought to the clinic in the refugee camp by administration staff after he was found unresponsive. Whilst in the clinic he was responsive for a while but was drooling and non-coherent.
According to staff, he was found this way yesterday and was taken to hospital. He was in overnight and released in the morning. He had literally run back from the hospital to the camp and taken the exact thing again. We are unsure what he had taken and why.
Perhaps he had wanted to end his life. Perhaps he just wanted to block out the pain of the situation he had found himself in. But either way, this teenager needed support for his mental health. This support is never going to come to him.
We kept him safe until the ambulance came for him. This ambulance isn’t an ambulance that will come quickly. In fact, when I left two hours later, it still hadn’t come. However no doubt, he would be admitted to hospital and released in the morning only for this cycle to happen again in the next days, weeks or perhaps he can block out the pain for longer than that. I don’t know. I don’t know how this story will end for him.
I have seen a lot of wounds here caused by self-harm. Cutting of the arms and burning with cigarettes. When I ask them why, they say they feel frustrated with how people treat them, frustrated with the situation or that they are scared and feel alone. Hurting themselves releases some of these feelings but causes open wounds that easily get infected due to their living conditions.
All I can do is suggest they get an elastic band for their wrist and flick it when they feel like this and ask them to try not to hurt themselves. I feel ashamed that this is the only treatment I can give them apart from healing their physical wounds. There is just such a lack of resources here for them.
They deserve more.
There are many that you can help. MVI ensure safe and effective healthcare to the refugees. Help them continue their amazing work in three locations in Greece. Check out how by following this link.
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