I am a doctor based in Toronto and have spent at least half of my working life in disaster and conflict zones – in Bangladesh, on the Syrian-Jordanian border, on the Venezuelan-Colombian border and, most recently, in Greece.
I have spent the greatest amount of time in Bangladesh, helping to provide medical care to Rohingya refugees who escaped genocide in neighbouring Myanmar. As one of the poorest nations in the world, Bangladesh can barely sustain its own population, so it is struggling to provide for the almost one million Rohingya refugees it is now hosting.
The conditions in the Rohingya refugee camps were so appalling, I never thought I would see a refugee camp more dysfunctional. But now I have – the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos.
Small boats and dinghies carrying people fleeing desperate situations in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo regularly land on the shores of this island, thought of as the gateway to the mythical promised land of safety and freedom that is Europe.
But that is really all it is – a myth. When refugees arrive in Moria, a prison-like camp surrounded by barbed wire, originally designed for 3,000 people but now housing almost seven times that, they quickly lose all hope for a better future.
Refugees sleep in flimsy tents, at times in sub-zero temperatures, with no electricity or running water. They cannot work as that requires a permanent address in Mytilini, where a month’s rent is at least 300 euros ($336) – an impossible amount for many. Even the ones who manage to scrounge together enough money to pay the first month’s rent often fail to secure employment because few want to hire a refugee, even if that refugee is a qualified doctor who had to leave Afghanistan after receiving death threats from the Taliban. Some of the refugees I met described being called “dirty Muslims” or being told to “go home” while seeking jobs in Mytilini.
I spent the first two weeks of February in the camp, volunteering with one of the NGOs struggling to provide adequate care for the refugees on the island. I worked in a Portakabin, with only the most basic medical equipment and some essential medicines.
During my time there, I witnessed the immense suffering, as well as the courage, kindness, and resilience, of my patients.
These are people being punished for the “crime” of seeking safety for themselves and their families, who are being told there is no place for them in this world.
They are people like 19-year-old Mohammad, who came to me complaining about pain in his right hand. Sitting across from him, I quickly scanned his right arm and realised that it ended in a stump at the wrist. He had phantom limb pain – pain that is felt in a limb that is no longer there. He told me that the Taliban cut off his hand after intercepting a letter he sent to an Afghan army general.
Mohammad is now living in the “jungle” – the area outside the main camp where refugees cluster together in conditions even worse than those inside. He described how he is regularly pushed out of food distribution lines because other refugees see him as “weak” and asked whether I could give him an extra food rations ticket. I could not – we were authorised to give these only to amputees who have lost a leg. My heart filled with sadness and anger as I struggled to explain this to him, feeling as though I was justifying a system of arbitrary rules even I didn’t understand.
Then there was 65-year-old Tariq, who came to me writhing in pain. He had a kidney stone, but there was not much I could do for him other than give him some paracetamol and ibuprofen and advice to drink plenty of water. Looking concerned, he asked me what he should do if the pain got worse in the night. I knew his only option then would be to travel in the darkness of the camp (a place where stabbings, muggings, and violence are commonplace) to beg the one Greek army doctor in the camp to transfer him to the hospital. I was embarrassed that I had nothing more to offer. I carefully packed his medication and placed it in his jacket pocket for him. He patted me on the head gently as if to say “it will be OK”. I watched him walk slowly away, clutching his side.
I cannot forget Hanifa, who came to me with pregnancy-related diabetes. She was a physician in Afghanistan, and had recorded her blood glucose values for me. I asked her to describe to me the meals she had received in the camp the day prior. It was clear that she would not be meeting the caloric requirements necessary for even a non-pregnant adult. She needed a diabetic diet but I knew prescribing one for her would simply mean that the standard croissant would be taken out of her breakfast meal. Besides that, because she had a husband, she would not qualify for the extra food rations given only to single pregnant women. As we talked, I noticed her rubbing her eyes. She told me she had blurry vision for the last few hours. I became concerned that she might be developing diabetic retinopathy, which can accelerate in pregnancy but does not usually present so acutely. I asked her where she had been that day and she described fleeing from protests, where tear gas had been fired by Greek police. I realised she had tear gas-related blurry vision. I expressed concern for her safety. She shrugged, saying, “This is the life of a refugee.”
On one particularly cold, wet day, my Afghan translator, Nasir, saw me struggling to find a clean space to perform midday prayers, and offered to let me pray in his home. I followed him through the steep winding paths to his tent, where three of his four children were asleep inside. When I finished praying, his four-year-old son, Hussain, pulled out a small shoebox of toys (all he was able to carry on the long journey from Afghanistan) and shyly gifted me a seashell.
As I stepped out of the tent to return to the clinic, I noticed my shoes – which had been outside in the rain – were soaking wet. When Nasir’s wife offered me her shoes, I initially refused. I knew this would leave her without any in the cold and rain. But she insisted, saying she would borrow Nasir’s for the day. As I walked back to the clinic in her shoes, I was overwhelmed by their kindness.
With the opening of Turkish borders, the situation in Moria is only going to get worse. Food ration lines will get longer. Increased overcrowding will lead to even worse hygiene and sanitation. More people will be forced to sleep out in the cold with inadequate protection from frostbite.
There have been, and will continue, attacks on NGO workers and exceedingly vulnerable refugees. Recent video footage of the Greek coastguard firing at unarmed refugees in dinghies is particularly alarming.
Several of my volunteer healthcare worker colleagues’ cars have been battered and windows smashed through by local Greek vigilantes who claim the presence of NGO workers on the island “encourage” migrants to come. Many of my colleagues have left Greece out of fear of their own safety. They have all expressed fear of what this will mean for the medical care of the refugees when the current system relies so heavily on volunteers.
Greece recently announced that it will suspend all asylum applications. More EU countries (and other prosperous Western nations, such as the US and Canada) need to step up and welcome these refugees. After all, wars started and sustained by Western powers, such as the conflict in Afghanistan, are what forced these mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to become refugees. No one chooses to be a refugee – they risk their lives travelling through mountains, rivers and oceans in freezing temperatures with nothing but the clothes on their backs because they have no other alternative. Because they have already lost so much, they simply have nothing more to lose.
As for the rest of us, we each have a sphere of influence in which we can, and must, act. If you are a person of faith, keep them in your prayers. If you work in a profession with transferable skills, volunteer your skills in service of the refugees. Even if there is nothing you can offer in person, you can speak to your political representatives and demand that they do more.
Whatever you do, do not forget them and their stories. For the only thing worse than the policies designed to strangle the survivors of some of the world’s worst conflicts, is the overwhelming apathy of the silent majority.