Working with refugees in Greece taught me to keep hoping

Working Abroad: Dr Conor Kenny, Médecins Sans Frontières, Lesbos

 

It is approaching 7pm in Lesbos, and an intense mid-afternoon heat scorches the desert. I’m perching on an upturned wooden crate propped up by a blue shipping container, waiting for my lift back to base.

In the distance, the beautiful orange glow of the sun sets over the hills surrounding the camp, momentarily illuminating the few sparse wispy clouds which have formed golden rivers in the sky. It signals the end of my mission here with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

It has been a calm shift to end on. The contrast from day one at the refugee camp at Idomeni, on the Greece-Macedonia border, is not lost on me. The camp for unaccompanied minors has been my workplace for the last six weeks. It is intense, but a different intensity to that of the camp at Idomeni.

Working with children requires a more holistic medical approach. Education is a key part of the role I play. I am continually surprised by their ability to understand basic medical concepts - theories like rational antibiotic usage - which are often lost on adults.

I consider whether I have properly said my farewells to the children I work with. I have purposely downplayed my goodbyes. Having observed the high turnover of people in the lives of these children, I am aware of the effect with which overstated goodbyes have on their emotional health as they crave stability in their chaotic lives. I don’t want to be part of the problem. I nod my head toward their tents and give a salute of appreciation. Under my breath I wish them the best of luck in the future.

The silence of the evening is broken by my lift turning into the gravel carpark of the camp, followed by a trail of swirling dust. I load my kit in the boot, take my seat and we drive back home through the twilight along the winding coastal road. The 45-minute journey gives me time to reflect on my time working in this corner of southern Europe.

Immediately my mind takes me back to those first days at Idomeni, stark images of a grown dishevelled man in his 40s in a striped shirt, black suit trousers and mismatching runners, devoid of dignity, pleading in desperation for help through a barbed wire fence; my breath in the dim light of the consultation room while warming my stethoscope as I assess a Syrian child with a chest infection during a freezing night-shift; an elderly woman praying for help during the Idomeni eviction.

The positive memories of my work are also powerful, of hope in the face of tragedy. Hope fuelled by a basic belief that their lives could be no worse then what they had just experienced. Hope seen in the eyes of mum and dad during a newborn check in a tent in the middle of a waterlogged field. Hope in the hearts of families waiting to be smuggled into the unknown by faceless individuals with no safer way to travel. Hope in the eyes of resolute mothers waiting in the vaccination line, aiming to give their children every chance of a better life.

The many characters who came into the clinics will be unforgettable; they brought energy and variety to my day. In hindsight, they weren’t that different to your “typical” Irish patient, except for the language, location and the journey they had taken to get there: the anxious mother with her teenage son; the young pregnant woman with her husband looking for advice; the man in his mid-50s with heart disease who will not stop smoking; the elderly grandmother with arthritis needing pain relief for her knees.

I have no idea what will happen these people in the future. Needless to say they will endure more politically-driven heartache and tragedy. It is my hope that Europe may eventually start to learn the lessons from this migrant crisis and avoid the self-imposed catastrophe, epitomised by the disaster in Idomeni.

Working in this environment reinforces that you are only as good as the people around you. To all the people whom I had the pleasure of working with, through good times and bad, thank you for your support. Finally, to the refugees I met, if Idomeni taught me one thing: keep your hope, the darkest moment comes before the dawn.

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