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Helping Syrian refugees: Life in Diavata

by Tyler Graf | Aug 19, 2016

For refugees in Greece, health care needs are growing more urgent with each passing day. With European borders effectively closed, and war raging in Syria, thousands of refugees have been confined to makeshift camps for months. Unable to to move freely or work, to eat well or seek adequate care, these refugees are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

They are losing hope.

But your gifts are providing care! Earlier this month, Medical Teams International dispatched a volunteer nurse and doctor to provide care to the neediest refugees, those whose physical and psychological conditions are deteriorating. The following is a dispatch from the field, from long-time volunteer nurse Sharon Tissel, who has spent two weeks with refugees in northern Greece.

Today, World Humanitarian Day, is an appropriate time to reflect on what it means to be a humanitarian and why it matters.

By Sharon Tissell, RN
As we arrive at the Diavata refugee camp, where 1,200 refugees live, there is already a patient waiting in the shipping container that has been remodeled to serve as our clinic.

She is wailing.

She complains of severe abdominal pain and is surrounded by her concerned family.

It takes a half hour and several medicines to settle her down enough to examine her. Her exam turns out to be unremarkable and further investigation reveals she suffers from repeated psychosomatic episodes related to trauma she has experienced. Resources of the kind she needs are extremely limited. Even Greek nationals have to wait months for a referral to specialists.

There are psychologists who regularly see patients in the camps, who provide some treatment for cases like these. So many of these refugees live in circumstances they never imagined, and for some reality is too much to bear.

Beautiful little 1-year-old Kosay had been nursing poorly and running a fever. His concerned mother brought him in at the end of clinic day to be checked. His exam looked completely normal until I found the culprit. Kosay had severe tonsillitis. This is not an unusual diagnosis. But in the setting of a refugee camp, a young child could become extremely ill. The goal of our work here is to catch such infections before they become life threatening events.

With consistent access to good health care for these refugees, we hope to avoid those common diseases that can escalate into emergencies. If we do our work well, we will have few emergencies and instead be able to treat healthcare needs early, focusing on preventing the diseases that can impact the heath of a whole refugee population. Kosay and his reassured mother went home with medicine but also with a plan for improved health. That is why Medical Teams is here.

Our clinic day is long and the heat is exhausting. To get a breath of fresh air I took a walk down the long paths that wind through Diavata, accompanied with Ahmed, our Egyptian interpreter. We chatted with the children, played some silly games and after a repeated invitation accepted a chair to sit with Ibrahim and Sadsa. 

Greece, Ibrahim, Razan and Sadsa, Aug. 2016 (2)
Ibrahim and Sadsa share cups of a coffee-like drink.

Sadsa quickly prepares the strong, black, scalding drink which she offers us in a plastic glass. Seeing her graceful movements, I can imagine her serving guests in her home, using the lovely tiny crystal glasses common to Syria. Those, and almost all their belongings, did not make the journey with her. She refuses to take a chair but sits on the ground next to her husband and smiles shyly. 

Ibrahim and Sadsa have four children and they relate to me how Ibrahim provided for his family as an international driver. This provided a good income for his family but also took him away from home for long periods at a time. With the increasing violence from ISIS in their area, they joined with many others and paid for a place on the rubber boats traveling to Greece. 

Maybe because Ibrahim was a driver or maybe just bad luck but he was assigned to drive the boat to Greece. (The smugglers make so much money on these transactions that they consider the boat as an operating expense, never expecting to retrieve it.) Ibrahim remembers the treacherous journey. He felt responsible for this group of Syrians hanging on for dear life. He says the boat was “swamped” twice and one time everyone was in the water clinging to the boat. 

They made the journey, however; but now he wonders why. I asked him, “Ibrahim, if you had known in Syria what you know now, would you have still made the trip?”

“No!” he exclaimed. “I would rather be even in Sudan right now (with all its civil war) than here in this camp. See that box behind me?” as he points to a white shipping container sitting on the edge of the camp. “This camp is like that box for us. We are closed up in a box and cannot get out.”

I moved the conversation to his children and he called for his youngest, 3-year-old Razan, a beautiful daughter with blond hair and chubby cheeks. “See this?” he asked and shows me some scars on her tummy.

Greece, Ibrahim, Razan and Sadsa, Aug. 2016 (1)
Ibrahim with 3-year-old Razan.

These are injuries that occurred recently during a severe untreated asthma attack as she was struggling to gain breath. They had no access to her inhalers that she used in Syria. I was able to give him some information on how to treat her asthma and things to avoid in the camp.

At the clinic, Ibrahim was grateful to receive a rescue inhaler for Razan. It was a small but important thing we could do for our neighbor here in Diavata, and we know it will make a difference for this family as they wait for their future to begin.

For these refugees, whose futures are uncertain, you are providing a bright spot. This is what being a humanitarian is all about, demonstrating love to a neighbor in need. Because of your donations, medical teams like the one dispatched to Greece can make a profound difference in the lives of the world's most vulnerable.