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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 127-129

A conversation with a refugee Lesvos, Greece

Department of Emergency Medicine, Maricopa Medical Center, Phoenix, Arizona; Department of Psychiatry, George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC, USA

Date of Submission02-Dec-2018
Date of Decision15-Mar-2019
Date of Acceptance22-Mar-2019
Date of Web Publication29-Aug-2019

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Courtney L Shay
Department of Emergency Medicine, Maricopa Medical Center, Phoenix, Arizona
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/IJAM.IJAM_58_18

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How to cite this article:
Shay CL. A conversation with a refugee Lesvos, Greece. Int J Acad Med 2019;5:127-9

How to cite this URL:
Shay CL. A conversation with a refugee Lesvos, Greece. Int J Acad Med [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Jan 25];5:127-9. Available from: https://www.ijam-web.org/text.asp?2019/5/2/127/265683

“No one cares about us,”

You tell me. A black hijab drapes your face and shoulders, framing a set of dark eyes that pierce straight into mine. I struggle to look back into those eyes. You are angry, and you want your voice to be heard.

You tell me about your journey to Moria, the refugee camp that you have called your “home” for the past 11 months. This is the same camp where we now stand face to face in front of the makeshift dental clinic where you assist the medical teams by translating Farsi. It is here where you tell me about the initial hope you felt when you first stepped foot on the island of Lesvos, imagining that you had reached a safe haven where you could begin a new life free from violence. You tell me of your goals to continue onward to Germany, where you would settle down and pursue a master's degree in education so that you can continue teaching English as you once had.

You tell me about your old life in Afghanistan. This was the life you had before the Taliban threatened the safety of everyone you knew, and you were forced to leave the country. The life you lived with your mother and father and uncles and cousins. You tell me about your job as an English teacher in the local schools, about your passion for creative writing, and about your love for cooking Kabuli Pulao, a traditional Afghani rice pilaf. This was before you came to Moria to eat the same plate of eggs and rice every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, until the very thought of that grain began to churn your stomach.

You tell me about your family, about your mother who came with you, who was also able to afford the $8000 fee to the man who would illegally smuggle both you and her across the Aegean Sea. And you tell me about your father, who wasn't able to afford the $8000.

You once had so much hope and excitement for the idea of beginning a new life, despite the fear and sadness of leaving your old one. But you have not been able to start a new life. In fact, you haven't even been allowed to continue your old one. In March 2016, the border between North Macedonia and Greece closed, and you became one of the thousands stranded without access to adequate housing, jobs, or education.[1] You are not allowed to hold a job or pursue education because you do not have a social security number and therefore cannot pay taxes. You cannot leave the island, as paradisiacal as it appears, because you do not have the proper documentation and legal status to be in this country. Although you are permitted to leave the camp and traverse the island, you have nowhere to go and no money left to spend.

You have not escaped the violence, either. On July 10, riots in Moria ravaged the camps, and on July 20, 2017, a peaceful protest turned violent when police officials began teargassing the victims.[2] It is not only the assigned protectors of peace who leave refugees broken and bleeding. Rates of self-harm and suicide have been steadily increasing since the advent of the European–Turkey deal signed in March 2016, mandating the deportation of illegal refugees back to Turkey where they are likely to face imprisonment and brutality. Doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières, who run mental health clinics for refugees on Lesvos, reported that 80% of the refugees assessed in Moria suffer from severe mental health issues.[3],[4] By the time of the riots in July, they estimated that an average of 6–7 people were presenting to their clinic each week requiring emergent care for attempted suicide or self-harm.[4]

I am here with other medical students from the George Washington University, each of us eager to serve, eager to learn, and eager to practice. But this patient population is only “willing” to be served by us because they have no other choice. They are not all impoverished – or at least they weren't before they came to Moria. Our waiting room (a metal bench protected from the blistering heat by a plastic tarp) is filled with people of all ages from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and they are speaking French, English, Arabic, and Farsi. Some are poor. They have never been to a dentist, and many have multiple cavities and rotted teeth that need to be extracted. But, many patients are from wealthier backgrounds where they experienced regular dental care. They come to us for revisions of root canals, and one even presents us with custom-made ceramic dental crowns he/she would like for us to install. But, we were unable to offer these services in the confines of a camp with limited resources and electricity. Again, their wishes and needs are not fulfilled, not for lack of money or social status, but for lack of legal status.

You ask me about my life in the States. You want to know what it is like to go to medical school, what it is I do every day, and what kind of people I help. I tell you about the long hours, the sleepless nights filled with anxiety, and the overwhelming workload I am forced to balance on a day-to-day basis. Suddenly, I feel guilty. How do I reconcile the fact that the same routines and responsibilities that imprison me in my own life, are the very same routines and responsibilities that would set you free?

”No one cares about us,” you repeat. Now I understand why you say this. I want to tell you that I care about you, but this is futile. Reassuring words are no match for the anger and sadness that has been building inside your heart for the past 11 months. I am still struggling to look you in the eye, but I force myself to do so because you deserve dignity and respect, and these are two of the very few things that I am able to offer you. I tell you how vital your work is here, and how much we rely on you to provide proper medical care to the people. I don't know what your future holds, and I have no promises to give you, but I do know that right now, your job is important. I want you to know that you are important, and that your life matters.

This conversation was one of the most powerful interactions I had with a refugee while in Greece. It forced me to question my own presence in the camp, not only as a health-care provider but also as a human being. I felt connected to the people, recognizing that we all have similar hopes of dreams of success and freedom, but at the same time, I felt distanced, knowing that I would be returning to my country in a few days to resume my regular life. I wonder whether or not my transient presence there actually offered anything real to the community. I am reminded by my mentors that if nothing else, my presence establishes the importance of bearing witness to these atrocities. I will carry these experiences and stories with me for the rest of my life, forever impacting the way that I view vulnerable patients.

As a health-care provider, I strive to leave a positive impact on the lives of the people I interact with. In the refugee camp, I often found myself struggling to reconcile my desire to help with the realization that I did not know how to help. It is a hopeless feeling, yet it cannot compare to the feeling of hopelessness that was conveyed to me by the people of Moria. I may not have been able to offer them much, but at least I was able to offer my ear as a platform for their voice. There will be countless moments in my career where this may be all that I can offer. Each time this happens, I will be reminded that my mission as a healthcare provider can sometimes only manifest itself in small ways. We must take hold of every one of these opportunities because offering a voice may be the only hope that these vulnerable patients have.

The author would like to acknowledge Dr. Manish Garg, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for his technical editing of this manuscript.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

European Humanitarian Situation and Needs. European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations; 2016. Available from: http://www.ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/greece_en.pdf. [Last accessed on 2018 Aug 09].  Back to cited text no. 1
Migrant Riots in Moria, Lesvos. Greek City Times; 2017. Available from: https://www.greekcitytimes.com/2017/07/19/migrant-riots-moria-lesvos/. [Last accessed on 2019 Feb 23].  Back to cited text no. 2
Médecins Sans Frontières. A Dramatic Deterioration for Asylum Seekers on Lesvos; 2017. Available from: https://www.msf.org/sites/msf.org/files/msf_lesbos_vulnerability_report1.pdf. [Last accessed on 2017 Aug 23].  Back to cited text no. 3
Médecins Sans Frontières. Confronting the Mental Health Emergency on Samos and Lesvos: Why the Containment of Asylum Seekers on the Greek Islands Must End; 2017. Available from: http://www.msf.org/sites/msf.org/files/2017_10_mental_health_greece_report_final_low.pdf. [Last accessed on 2019 Mar 19].  Back to cited text no. 4


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