Aphrodite Iacovidou, a Cypriot junior doctor from a London hospital, describes her experience of volunteering at a Lesbos refugee camp dealing with up to 2,000 new arrivals every day
Sitting in my parents’ home trying to unwind and feeling a bit guilty over the luxuries I have always enjoyed but was never grateful for, I am now trying to make sense of my recent eight day stint in Moria refugee camp in Lesbos.
The camp is the island’s main registration point for refugees arriving on the island from Turkey. Even in the cold month of December, 2,000 refugees a day were landing on Lesbos seeking a gateway to Europe. In all, more than 700,000 refugees entered Europe through Greece in 2015.
I had wanted to help in some way and joined Mercy Worldwide Trust, a UK-based charity, which has had a very active role in Moria Camp.
Moria is actually a prison set on a hill, a 20 minute drive from the city of Mytilene. It houses four dormitories on the top and a few more at the bottom. These are used for the registration process and the housing of up to 600 people, including people sleeping on the floor on cardboard, as mattresses are limited and in fairly bad condition. The dormitories are designated for families with children and vulnerable adults such as single women, the elderly and the sick. Fortunately, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has built a massive tented camp at the bottom of the hill, as well as temporary ‘Ikea’ houses.
The camp is divided by ethnicity, where Syrians get registered in the bottom section and everyone else at the top registration point. At the back of the camp, the olive tree grove, now known as the jungle or the Afghani Hill, is used to accommodate surplus refugees. The grove is now full of donated festival tents and is where mostly single men but sometimes families are housed.
I was fortunate enough to work with doctors and health care professionals from different organisations with two very important shared characteristics – compassion and a passion for helping in whatever way they could. We were all there using our own funds and annual leave. We had two tents at our disposal to work from, one at the top of the hill and one at the bottom. Some would stay in the tent treating refugees who came seeking medical assistance, others went to the refugees themselves, treating people in queues, on the floor, in mud, and at the beach as they got off the boats.
I was shocked at the numbers of children I saw, mostly healthy but suffering from coughs and colds from travelling for so long. I treated countless sore throats and headaches, fortunately minor enough to be treated with some painkillers and throat lozenges. Most chest infections with temperatures were treated more aggressively, as some of those afflicted had either been in water, swallowed water or had been exposed to the bitter cold of the north Aegean Sea.
I got to treat infected war burns, chemical burns from the engine oil, cuts and bruises, and twisted or broken ankles and wrists. I saw one three-year-old Afghani girl who was inconsolable and refused to move her left arm. With some sign language and examination, I manage to find out she had been pulled roughly by the arm in an attempt to prevent her from falling in the water when she got off the boat. She had a dislocated elbow and I relocated it and put her arm in a sling. I soon found out that an X-ray was out of the question, as there were only three ambulances dealing with lots of emergencies.
That same night, I had a lady ran up to me and pass me her 25-day-old baby all wrapped up, saying ‘baby not well, not breathing well’. This poor bundle of life was making grunting noises and had trouble breathing. He seemed tiny for a month-old baby.
There was no way the ambulance would get to us in time, so we grabbed the baby and mum and got into a car. Many things have been said about the hospital at Mytilene, however, I encountered nothing but professionalism and care from the paediatric doctors. The baby was underweight, as mum was not able to breast feed because she had not been eating properly herself. He was dangerously hypoglycaemic and had a chest infection. He stayed in the hospital for three days while the family was taken to Pipka – a camp for vulnerable families – before carrying on their journey.
I did not, however, just get to do medical things. I handed out sandwiches, water, chocolates and lollipops to kids (they work a treat for a crying child) that my friends and colleagues had donated. In return, I got so much gratitude and love from people. I got offered a seat and food by the fire with refugees who would try to explain why they had run away from their countries. I believe they are brave for seeking a better life.
The most memorable night was when we had around 800 new arrivals who all needed to be registered. The riot police were in force as the crowd was rowdy and upset. Volunteers managed to calm them down and get them into some order. We sought out the most vulnerable and managed to fast-track them to the front of the queue for registration.
I watched in disbelief at the bitter cold rain pouring down on the children wrapped up in plastic bags waiting patiently in a queue. If there is a God, why was he not watching these kids with no blankets and shelter? Volunteers from the various charities quickly drove to their warehouses and brought every single blanket, and all the food and water they could find. Outside the registration rooms was another small office where I had to put all the ill and frail to ensure they did not get hypothermic. About 20 people in a 3x4metre room.
The process takes too long as every refugee needs to register, then give their finger prints and have photographs taken. Registration, however, is open 24 hours a day. During daytime, it is run by Frontex, the European external border agency, whilst the Greek police have to cover at night on top of their other duties.
Good coordination meant every single person was fed that night with warm soup, sandwiches, chocolate and hot tea. And all the refugees were registered. It could not have been done without the volunteers – Hassan, Uzman, Venus, Huda, Medhi, Ellen, Sajad and Cyrill among them. Many worked for more than 14 hours. I lost count of the times a policeman showed me or my colleagues an ill person or a family who needed a doctor. I will never forget Panayiotis, the policeman who brought children with wet shoes from registration to our storage room and found shoes for them himself and then helped the children put them on. Nor will I forget Stathis, the officer in charge, for his compassion in allowing us to bring food and water to those inside the registration point and potentially creating delays.
My last two nights were spent with the volunteer group ‘I AM YOU’ at the beach. This Swedish group have cooperated with people abroad, who have contacts with refugees trying to make the crossing. They have created a group including lifeguards, medics and other volunteers, coordinating where help is needed as boats come in. We all sat south of Mytilene airport looking at the sea. It was pitch black and I could not comprehend how we were ever going to see any boats. Then, about 200m from the beach a boat full of families and children suddenly appeared which was then followed by more.
We soon used all our emergency blankets and normal blankets. Water and bananas went quickly too. I was called to assess a lady in her forties who could not walk. I soon found out she had been in the boat for three hours and people had been sitting on her. She could not feel her legs as they had gone numb.
It was shocking how many people were squeezed into a dinghy made for a maximum of 30 people. I must have counted at least 40-50 per boat that night. The refugees are charged up to €1,500 each for the two-and-half hour crossing from Turkey, and some are held at gunpoint if they change their mind. The dinghies sometimes run into trouble, run out of fuel or have engine malfunctions. The boats are driven by one of the refugees as the people smugglers jump off as soon as they get them into deep waters. This means the boats sometimes end up travelling in the wrong direction.
Too many have died trying to make this crossing due to bad weather or boat malfunction. In this week alone 34 refugees, three of them children, were found dead on the Turkish coast after apparently trying to reach Lesbos.
We all have heard stories of the fake lifejackets and the adults trying to hold onto children to survive as their ticket did not include a lifejacket. The majority of these people have never seen the sea and do not know how to swim.
We had thought the number of boats would slow down after the deal between Europe and Turkey in November when Turkey promised to help stem the flow of refugees to Europe in return for cash, visas and renewed talks on joining the EU.
But boats still kept coming, sadly to much more remote locations, making the trip even more dangerous. On my last night we had seven boats arrive and then at dawn another at the end of a rocky coast. Cars could not approach and I had to run down with my medical pack and whatever supplies we had to receive the new arrivals. I met a Syrian man with nasty ulcers on his feet who was visibly in pain and a young couple from Iraq. The young wife was six months’ pregnant and visibly in distress. I watched a Dutch volunteer, comfort her and try and calm her down. She wanted me to check her unborn baby, but the only thing I could do is place my stethoscope on her tummy. The couple’s faces lit up. I knew she could have a proper check up at the camp later on. I later found out that they were running away from Islamic State (IS). They were trying to get to safety for their new family.
We assessed numerous men who were shocked and crying at the beach side. All were clinically well but psychologically broken by what they had lived through so far. I watched them cry in the volunteers’ arms, whilst hugging their children. They were so grateful to us.
I know the Greeks have been hit hard by the economic crisis, but I saw only compassion and humanity from them towards the refugees. I met two lovely Greek ladies who would drive up and down the coast after 6am giving out tea and chocolates. I saw old men help clear the beach of lifejackets and help carry refugees. I watched taxi drivers play with refugee children at the port, policemen carry children and the elderly, and locals pick up families from the streets to drive them to the port or towards Moria Camp.
It is times like this that humanity comes together. I left Moria Camp thinking I want to go back because of all the compassion, cooperation, patience and love I had seen. And that is what makes all suffering, pain and grief go away. We are all in this together. Where you are born is a lottery. Who your parents are, is only chance. It could be any of us in those boats.