Having returned from the camps again only a few days ago, my heart is heavy with more tales of sadness and despondency. My cheeks are still wet with tears of the women I cried with, my hands still warm from their earnest grips of hope, knowing that I made a promise to them.
A promise that if nothing else, I would at least share their messages with you. A promise that I would not forget to tell their tales and remind our community of their stagnant realities.
During my consultations, the women in particular tearfully recount the horrors they left behind while I tend to their needs. They, the lucky ones, escaped from the violence that had surrounded them. They wanted not only to live but to see their children have opportunities like ours do, instead of the grim reality of having to walk past corpses and body parts on their way to school.
That is, of course, when schools and universities were still functional; many have been closed for several years now. Most children under the age of seven years and younger have never known what it is like to live in a home other than an abandoned school building, a tent or, now, a sparsely furnished shipping container. They despair on the conditions they find themselves trapped in.
In Greece, which is safe and technically not a war zone, they were greeted with riot police armed with shields, barbed wire and even detained in “prisons” until their fate was decided. For weeks or sometimes months, they were thrown dry bread and water. “We were treated like dogs”, exclaimed Jamila, a mother of five, who cares for her husband with unstable diabetes.
My own observation was that dogs were treated better; even the stray ones that hang around the camps, feasting on trays of uneaten potatoes in tomato sauce. If and when there is warm water to bathe in, it tends to be rusty and discoloured from aged water tanks that were never meant for use beyond the short term. Umar, only 22 years old, fidgeted nervously with his fingers (where his nails had been removed during previous torture) struggles daily to comprehend this existence. Many young men like him who face this bleak existence contemplate suicide.
Amongst our caseload are many vulnerable children with disabilities, pregnant women, elderly men and women, cancer sufferers, victims of torture and the consequent post-traumatic stress, depression and even psychotic illnesses.
Many - sometime whole families - suffer with kidney stones due to drinking water contaminated with unhealthy minerals from many years of destroyed infrastructure. Last weekend, I met Muhammad, a 21 year old man, blinded from shrapnel lodged in his brain. His father, Mahmoud had to choose between him and his mother and sisters. He left his family behind in Syria and has no contact with them, his faith firm that God would take care of them.
I met Khaled, a man with a poorly healing mine injury on his leg who goes without painkillers in favour of ensuring his 8 month old baby has a regular supply of milk and nappies. He lives in a school building that was being used as a communal squat, yet he had been rejected from the asylum services.
I am now entering a third year of directly supporting those traumatised and displaced by the ongoing and worsening wars in both Syria and Mosul, Iraq; these are places where the majority of the people I see come from. As I glance at my patients’ records, I notice that their names are similar to many of my own friends and family’s. The blatant disregard for their welfare by the surrounding Arab nations acts like salt on their continuously seeping wounds.
I refuse to be part of that. I cannot stop now. I cannot let them down.
Over the years our clinical volunteer database has grown, with almost 800 doctors and nurses willing to care for these patients. ‘Team Kitrinos’ works in difficult circumstances, seeing hundreds of patients and sometimes endangering their own wellbeing when tensions rise in the camps.
We have worked thus far with a fraction of the budget that bigger organisations like Hellenic Red Cross, Save the Children and the UNHCR have. Our reputation as excellent clinical providers has been recognised by the Greek Ministry of Health, who have formally requested our presence in a growing number of camps.
Unfortunately the ongoing and growing need coincides with very little publicity about the grim reality of life in Greek refugee camps, or, even worse, the streets and squats of the big cities - a harsh and desolate reality.
Siyana Mahroof-Shaffi, Humanitarian GP and Founder of Kitrinos Healthcare
We are raising money to support them here, there is no amount too little.