Saturday, May 21, 2016
I haven’t posted in a while, because I have been a bit too busy and overwhelmed. I am re-posting this part because I’m still feeling the same way as before: I’m not a hero. None of us are. But we all have something in us that draws us here to care for other human beings. It takes all shapes and sizes but it’s been an amazing thing to witness. Saying goodbye to my teams who have volunteered for SCM, SAMS, and Kitrinos each week is heartbreaking, but meeting all of these wonderful souls with the same common goal really gives me a lift. I feel very fortunate to be here amongst so many big hearts.
I want the world to see the reality of this situation. I’m not a lifesaver nor a hero and I’m not drastically improving the lives of my refugee friends here. I didn’t come here to get a new profile picture or to slap it on future job applications.
I came here to show these people that I care enough to not pretend that their struggle doesn’t exist and to tell them that there are others like me. I want to show them that they aren’t alone.
There are very few things that will change their circumstances. You need to educate yourself. Aleppo is being blown off the face of the earth. American- and Russian-made bullets and bombs are tearing apart innocent people. We literally allow our politicians to get away with murder. You need to vote. You need to demand more from your government and your media. You need to give these people and their struggle the attention they deserve. We are indirectly ruining and ending lives. That’s a fact. Humanity is one race and one religion and we do a shitty job taking care of each other. It’s not that hard to do.
I’m a strong believer in the power of just showing up. Show up to the polls and the protests. Show up to the disaster zones. Combat media brainwashing by sharing posts from people like me. I know that my voice is powerful because I’m a witness to this chaos and a second-hand witness to the ongoing havoc we have created in the Middle East. In fifty years, what will you be telling your kids and grandkids when they learn about the biggest mass-migration since WWII? Hopefully you’ll be telling them that you stood up for what’s right and just, even in a situation where that road was far less traveled.
Sunday, May 29th
This week has been the longest and most intense emotional rollercoaster I’ve ever ridden. Last week, we were given health care responsibilities at a new military camp, or relocation center called Sindos. With the closure of the makeshift camp at Idomeni and the impending closure of the other makeshift camps like Eko, which are sure to follow, refuges are now being moved to places like Sindos as an intermediate solution. Our medical teams of SCM/SAMS and Kitrino are moving along right with the refugees. The speed at which international volunteers try their best to create a loving community never ceases to amaze me. But here at Sindos, right now, the sanitation is horrible and the food is bland. This is a nightmare for anyone trying to manage their blood sugar or
women who are pregnant or nursing. There is a lot to do to build infrastructure back to a functional standard.
The shelter here at Sindos is a step up from living in a tent in the muddy fields of Idomeni. But it’s still no place for children, or for the medically vulnerable people we’ve identified here. We have two patients who need dialysis. Finding ways to provide that for them has consumed so much of my heart and energy. I don’t just want them to get dialysis; I want them to get the best treatment possible. Dialysis is grim, even in America where you can pay your way to the best treatment.
But following their journey has broken my heart. I can only cling to the hope that the refugees at least know that, while it seems like the world is against them, we are in their corner. And so went my Monday. Call the
ambulance, give the patients money for the cab, and wait. They don’t make it home until 1 am the next day.
On Tuesday, I meet my new best friend in Sindos. He’s the sweetest baby I’ve ever laid eyes on. And even though he comes to us in the midst of an allergy fit, sneezing and goopy, I still fall in love with him. He was born with
a disability and he and his family are going to face a lifetime of struggles. I get the ball rolling on getting him and his family to a safe place where he can be raised with the support he needs. For the time being, I watch his beautiful mama dote on him in spite of people staring at him and even going so far as to ask, “what’s wrong with the baby?” It’s a regular heartbreak, but her strength and love for her baby are contagious.
On Wednesday, one of my other new friends in Sindos falls ill and I spend the day on a wild goose chase calling all of the hospitals in Thessaloniki trying to figure out which emergency room she had been admitted to and what has happened to her. She’s fine and is back to her old self, but I am stressed by the experience of not being able to find her. My Ippocrateo Hospital experience left me devastated and helpless. (Picture every hospital in bad horror movies: dim and broken lights, unattended patients staggering around the halls or leaning against the wall looking unwell, questionable hygiene, and not a single member of the staff to be found.) I hate feeling out of control, especially when I feel that a person has trusted me with their health and well-being.
I want the world to see the reality of this situation. I’m not a lifesaver nor a hero and I’m not drastically improving the lives of my refugee friends here.
Just when I am thinking that my week can’t get any crazier, Thursday rolls along. At Eko camp, we are briefed about a family whose son is sick, very sick. The unconfirmed diagnosis has been muscular dystrophy. His oxygen
saturations are low. Mohammad and Hassan are working around the clock to support the family and to try and keep the boy stable. Although aware of their grim situation, I keep my distance because selfishly, I am scared. I am scared that I’ll care too much. The family is finally brought to the attention of the amazing Dr. Matt Keller from Switzerland. I know they are in good hands based on the extent of my interactions with him.
I have been playing with the youngest daughter outside of their tent in front of our mobile clinics, seeing her wave occasionally at mom or dad. All of Thursday is a whirlwind of activity around tent number seven. Discussions are being held on everything from transporting the child to a hospital in Thessaloniki to funeral arrangements should the child not make it. There is nothing worse than contemplating the funeral of a child.
All day Thursday, I feel like my heart is being torn to pieces. Not only do I inevitably come to care about this family, but I love my colleagues with all my heart. They are caretakers and guardian angels. Seeing this child’s condition tears them up inside and in turn it destroys me. But then, just an hour before we are due to shut down our clinic and leave for the day, Mohammad is given the green light from contacts in Switzerland. Dr. Matt has gotten the approval to relocate the family to Basel where the boy and his sister will receive the care they need. The only catch is moving a child who is so sick and unstable.
While we are excited and thrilled, we know that the journey is going to be very dangerous for the boy. Even if they do manage to keep him stable, there is a chance that the airport or the pilot will deem him unfit to fly. And so ensues the most stressful twenty-four hours of my life, as I do mypart to help with the coordination. I will this boy to live.
On Friday, with Swiss visas in hand, Mohammad manages to convince the pilot to let them fly. Three bottles of oxygen and a whole lot of stress later, the family arrives in their new home. They’ll receive all of the financial, medical, and social support that they’ll need. Honestly I still can’t believe it. I still think it’s all just a dream.
You don’t know inspiration until you’ve seen the way this team works: Mohammad the Palestinian-American nurse anesthetist student from Chicago . . . a tireless activist and our fearless leader during this endeavor;
Hassan, one of our in-camp translators; Dr. Matt, our Swiss doctor with critical connections back home; and Petros, our much valued Greek-speaking volunteer who deals with the Greek authorities. None of our efforts would be possible without each member of this team contributing their specific set of skills to the overall task.
I can’t express my gratitude. Sometimes this work is isolating, it feels like the world has forgotten about our refugee friends here and the struggles that are their daily reality. The passion and dedication that these people on our team demonstrate on behalf of someone in need restores my faith in the beauty and the goodness of humans.
I’ve learned a lot about friendship and love during my time here. I’ve come to care deeply for people with whom I can’t even have a conversation because of language barriers. I’ve eaten their food, danced their dances, braided their hair, bandaged up their boo-boos, held their babies, and we smile and laugh together on a daily basis. For those whom I can talk to, the fact that we share this experience and ride this insane roller coaster together has made us friends for life. I love my teammates too, like I love my family: deeply and unconditionally.
The next challenge we will soon face is the evacuation of the camp surrounding Eko Gas Station near Polykastro. Idomeni camp is no more. I’m not ready to go back to Idomeni yet and see what has become of a place that
was once bustling with activity. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a place I came to enjoy and appreciate. It was a phase that we all experienced together.
For my friends and family back home, I want you to know how much my time here is changing me and for those of you who I’ve met over here, I want you to know how much the days I’ve spent with you mean to me. This isn’t
easy work, but it’s very valuable work. I can’t presently imagine my life being any other way. Thank you to my Eko and SAMS/SCM family and to all of the parties involved. It’s been a tough week and there are many challenges ahead, but we’ve been handed a hell of a test and we nailed it. Well done.
May 30, 2016
It’s not over. The continued struggle of refugees is my daily reality. They flee war and bear the physical and emotional wounds of the horrors they have witnessed. They trade their freedom and their home, their families and their communities, for their lives and end up in limbo, tossed back and forth between locations, beyond their control. They are treated like pawns; their lives are tossed around in turmoil like some sort of sick game.
These are human beings. They wouldn’t become homeless and make this journey if they had any better choice. Open your eyes and then open your heart. This has to end. I can’t say this enough: this is the largest humanitarian crisis of our generation. Where do you stand? This isn’t an issue we can just throw money at; this issue needs activism and compassion. Stand up for these people with your voice, your actions and your votes, not just your wallet. Don’t let this agony go on in vain. Demand more for these people.
Madi Williamson is a humanitarian from Washington state volunteering with Salaam Cultural Mission. She was inspired to travel to Greece to help with the refugee crisis after successful medical missions to the Dominican Republic and founding her own charity to bring soccer equipment to orphans in Africa. She is co-author of Leaving Syria, to be published by Cune Press on May 20, 2017. Her essay here is excerpted from that book with permission.