Diary Entries from Lesvos – October 10th-18th
Please see below for our daily escapades.
Best Wishes & Salaam,
Today we received a full handover from Hina, Sabrina, Basel, and Daoud. Hina and Sabrina informed us of their current set up which largely involved slotting into the medical tent of Waha. They used only their own supplies and it seems the medical problems continue to be simple ailments.
In the evening as we were heading towards dinner we passed Eftalu beach where suddenly in the darkness a boat of refugees landed. We helped them off the boat ensuring children and babies were taken first. Our Arabic speakers continuously welcomed everyone and relayed instructions while the rest of the medical and humanitarian volunteers assessed how wet people were and wrapped them in blankets. From the medical point of view we were largely observing our predecessors. Quick assessments and triages were carried out to rule out any injuries or serious medical problems.
Food and water were distributed. Teams to transport the refugees were alerted.
Today was a quiet day due to the stormy weather across the island. Very few boats have come across.
The team split into two today. Two people remained behind to organise and pack our supplies, hygiene packs, and emergency blankets. Three people visited the Oxy camp today to introduce ourselves to the Waha team and camp coordinators. Due to the low footfall at the camp that day, the medical camps, food stall, and registration tents were functioning well and did not require any further help, so we helped clean up the road outside the camp.
We picked up all the garbage from the street and sidewalk. We collected all the reusable items such as discarded blankets, clothes, shoes, and sleeping bags. We can confirm that all of these will be washed and reused as per the usual set up of Oxy camp. During this time several of the Syrian refugees, total 6 men, asked if they could help us. We gave them gloves and our team grew to 9 people. Together we were able to transform the appearance of the streets outside Oxy camp. The Greek police stopped and thanked us four times for our efforts.
As our group has now grown it is no longer feasible to keep slotting into the medical tents run by other NGOs. We have supplies and donations that can help people better. We have decided to arrange ourselves into a mobile clinic in collaboration with a group of independent Swiss volunteers. We will provide the medical expertise, medicines, and translators. They will augment our team by designing and providing us with two mobile tents that can be assembled and dismantled within 15 minutes.
Two boats arrived overnight despite the storm.
Today we attended the local volunteer meeting at the Starfish Group headquarters by the harbour. We identified several problems with our current set up that required discussions with other coordinators.
As two of us will be remaining in Lesvos, Zoya from UK (me!), has been added as a contact with the Starfish group. This is a network of independent volunteers that is headed by foreign nationals who have been residing in Lesvos for many years. They understand the system, geography, and local politics. It is important that every SCM team come and introduce themselves to Melinda/Tracey and get added on to the whatsapp group run by them. With this you receive live updates with requests for equipment or medical assistance.
We have made it clear to the other NGO and other independent volunteers that we are a team of doctors available to be deployed for emergencies. Calls started coming in immediately!
The entire SCM team then scrambled to Eftalou after reports of several boats landing. We aided two boats ashore. These were not the normal black rubber boats that contain 40-50 people. They were now two tier boats with at least 70-150 passengers on board.
Our team was in the water helping the refugees disembark, taking babies and children first followed by women, luggage, and finally men.
There are often heavily pregnant women or those with newborns among the travelers. We identified a 5-day-old baby who had been discharged from the hospital just one day before having received a blood transfusion in Turkey. They were not feeding well and it was important this baby had repeat blood tests. We transported the family to the local hospital.
In the evening we sent one doctor out on an emergency call for a patient coughing up blood and stranded inland. On arrival our team found that the patient was having multiple seizures and was in fact a known epileptic who had likely lost his medication on his journey as a refugee. There was little we could do medically except keep him stable and transport him to the urgent care facility in Kaloni in our vehicle. He was nearly status epilepticus and this rapid transport was likely to be life-saving.
Day 4 – Harbour Day
Today was an extremely difficult day. Our team was asked to help out at the harbour. This is where the Greek Coast Guard brings in boats that have capsized. The refugees have been in the water sometimes for several hours. They are extremely traumatised from the fear of drowning or the death of their family members. Those brought into the harbour are given medical and humanitarian care before they are placed under arrest and taken to Mytiline directly for registration.
When we arrived, the coast guard had brought in about 17 people. They were hysterical. One man and his daughter were inconsolable. He had lost his wife and she had lost her mother. She could not have been older than 9 years old and was screaming “mama, mama.” Her name was Hiba. She fainted. A simple vasovagal syncope. Her father could not stop crying. Another man required stitching on his hand. Another on his face.
One gentlemen was extremely upset as he could not find his daughter. He had his son, but his daughter was nowhere to be seen. As they calmed down they began to tell their story: There was an accident. The Greek Coast Guard ship had hit their boat with great force. It sliced through the entire boat and many were dead on impact. There were others on the boat and every time a motor could be heard everyone waited with hope and anguish, praying that their loved ones were found and brought back to them.
In the meantime we got them out of their wet clothes and tried to feed them. Everyone was refusing food and water except for the kids.
Then it happened. The second group of people from the same boat were found and docked at the port. A mother ran down the harbour, looked at the first group of people, and began screaming and wailing. She did not stop. Her husband ran into the crowd and was searching frantically. They came with 4 children. Only one survived. “Why did they kill my children? Why?” Her name was Nadya. Nadya went between fainting and screaming constantly for the next 1.5 hrs. She would not let us dry her off. She just sat down on the harbour, soaking wet, and mourned her 3 dead children. Eventually we had to buy some diazepam from the pharmacy up the road and sedate her. It was the only way to get her calm enough to transport her. Her husband asked where the morgue was before they left.
Hiba and her father also began crying again. As the second boat unloaded it was confirmed, their mother was gone and her two siblings were found. I cradled Hiba in my arms for a long time, giving her kisses on the cheeks. When I would stop she would draw me closer to her again. Lemah and Zakia sit with Nadya in across their laps, crying with her, consoling her, and trying to get a few sips of water past her lips.
Cultural awareness is also very important. There were many European volunteers, play therapists, and psychiatrists on hand who were trying to distract the children with games. Others tried to offer Nadya a cigarette to calm her down. They were also very disturbed when they witnessed Nadya hitting her chest and head. Finally we intervened and told the European volunteers that these are normal ways of expressing grief in the Middle East and the kids are old enough to understand death. They are aware that their mothers and siblings and have just passed away in the sea. They must let the children be with their families and stop trying to get them to play right now.
It was a day that all of us cried. It was heartbreaking and it was the reason why we are here.
First thing in the morning, we see a boat driving past our hotel heading straight for an area of the shore that is largely inaccessible by main road, so we grab our equipment and head out. We manage to park the car along a dirt track, jump a fence, and cross a field to reach them.
A man was immediately brought to our attention. He was disabled with extreme muscle wasting and was in severe pain. He was pale and tachycardiac. His relatives showed us some photos of him and we realised he had a large decubitus ulcer. Further examination revealed he had a colostomy and urostomy in situ which were likely sources of contamination. I imagine they had not been changed for several weeks along his journey and he was suffering from septic shock.
We used a piece of the rubber boat as a stretcher and rolled him onto that. We then carried him to the van and transported him to the main hospital in Mytiline. This transport was most definitely life-saving. Our Swisscross friends visited him in the hospital the next day and we were all so relieved to find out he was in full recovery with IV antibiotics and some TLC.
During the evening we went out to the Skala Sykamina region. Along this stretch of coast are several landing points, one large transit camp and one smaller sized transit camp. They are further away and therefore less popular with the volunteers. They are being run totally on independent volunteers and donations. They are certainly stretched for resources compared to Oxy, both material and personnel.
On this night all camps, transit and larger, were well over capacity. The night was cold and windy and there was nowhere to transport the refugees. The safest place they could be was in the nearest transit camp along the shore. The boats kept coming, one after another. Another 60 people, another 120, another 150.
The cycle was the same: Pull them out, babies first; Calm them down; Help them to the road; Dry them off; and Direct them to food and water. Tonight emphasised the value of our Arabic speakers and was very much about crowd management. Without these skills, no one would have been reassured. Without them we could not have managed the chaos.
It took about 4 hours to handle both camps, to tell the crowds not to travel, that their safest place was here. “Find a place under a tree, bundle up, and let your children sleep,” we kept repeating, “Stay off the road, don’t separate from your families.”
Stage 1 Skala transit camp was finally under control. We then headed up to the main camp and spent the rest of the evening distributing food, water, hygiene packs, diapers, and sanitary pads to the crowd.
When we left, everyone was calm, the night was quiet, and thousands upon thousands were sleeping under the leaves.
Tonight was another busy night at Skala. The crowds were plentiful but we were experienced now. Communicate well; check in with the coordinators; direct people accurately; hand out supplies. Give it 2-3 hours and the boats will cease; ensure everyone has a patch of earth to sleep; then go home and collapse in our own beds.
On this night we found a pregnant woman who had begun her labour on Turkish land. She was unwell, dehydrated, and in pain. Our team and the Swisscross took her to the nearest clinic, Kalloni, where they were told that they were unable to care for her here. There is no delivery room and no OBGYNs. So we put her back in the car and took her to Mytiline. On arrival there was a tense stretch of time as the baby’s heartbeat was undetectable for 15 minutes. Lemah thought she would have to break the news to this young mother that her baby was dead. Fortunately, they found a weak heartbeat. The woman did not deliver that night but she was safe and well cared for. Our team described this as an emotional rollercoaster and Lemah was so well supported by Rahel, our Swisscross volunteer/veterinarian/makeshift nurse.
Within an hour was another patient. A man fitting and dropping his GCS to 4 in between his seizures was identified. At this point Aleem decided that the patient must be transported to a medical facility. We agreed that we are ultimately a medical mission and we must trust in the decisions of our medically trained doctors. Before transporting patients, however, we must ensure we have obtained the authority to do so by the Greek Police. Once we have informed them and provided our license plates we are permitted to continue.
This is an important point to clarify as we want to keep our staff as safe as our patients.
This was a calm day. There was a steady stream of small number boats coming in throughout the day. They were medically healthy, provided with water and given directions to the nearest camp.
There is a world of difference between the boats that arrive in the day compared to the night. Those in the day are much calmer because of the improved visibility. They are less frightened and they dry off quickly. They are also able to walk to the transit points, freeing up our buses for more urgent need.
Goodbyes, airport drop offs, and a quick stop to check out Kara Tepe, another transit camp.