Dr. Bill Dienst April 12, 2016, Eko Gas Station near Polykastro, Greece
Vincent (not his real name) is a friend of mine: A 28 year old man from Syria with a warped sense of humor. He acts like a child because he never had a childhood. He volunteers every day with our mobile healthcare van serving as one of our Arabic-English translators.
He greets me every day, shouting and laughing “Kill Bill!” I must admit, I find this unnerving. He goes on and on about these Quentin Tarantino movies, which I have yet to see. He thinks they are fabulous! “Just like a cartoon!” he exclaims.
I am trying to use him to help me do patient interviews; the line of patients keeps getting longer and longer. I am trying to focus on patient care. Vincent keeps trying to tell jokes; many I find foul mouthed and disgusting. I won’t even try to repeat them here. The line keeps getting longer and I find myself getting frustrated. Frankly, I him obnoxious at this point. I am starting to resent that I am stuck with him.
Then something happens, which changes my initial impressions. Late at night as the clinic is winding down, a sick 9 month old dehydrated child presents, who has had continuous diarrhea for 8 days. This child needs to be hospitalized, and the closest hospital is in the Greek town of Kilkis, over 40 km away across farm fields in the dark.
The main problem facing us now is lack of transportation. This child is not sick enough to warrant an ambulance, which are hard to come by anyway. I also need an Arabic-English translator to help the Greek doctor at the hospital.
So I go with this child, his mother and Vincent in my small Hertz rental car all they way to Kilkis (population about 60 thousand); three Syrians and one American. None of us have ever been to Kilkis before. I am glad I have studied the Greek alphabet, so I can read road signs and not get too lost trying to get to the hospital.
I wince at the idea of having to listen to Vincent’s warped sense of humor all the way to Kilkis. I start by asking him what he thinks should be done to resolve the crisis in Syria. “Drop a huge nuclear bomb on the whole country!!” I ask him why? “Then all the people who are suffering and dying slowly will finally be put out of their misery!!”
Then a funny thing happens. A tormented soul emerges from his internal angst, stops all the sick jokes, and starts telling me his personal story.
Vincent was not born not in Syria, but in Iraq. This is because his grandfather was a political opponent of former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad, the current President Bashar’s father. Vincent’s family fled to Iraq to avoid persecution. His father divorced his mother when he was about 3 years old, so he never really knew his father. His mother suffered severe post-partum depression after the birth of younger brother Mohammed. His mother killed his younger brother by cutting his head off, also when young Vincent was only 3. His mother has been mentally disturbed ever since, and Vincent has distanced himself from her.
As a result of all this turmoil, Vincent was raised by his grandmother, with whom he is now closest. In 1995, when he was 7 years old, the family returned to Syria while trying to escape the growing hardships resulting from the American orchestrated attack, followed by the no fly zones and embargo of Iraq.
Upon returning to Syria, the entire family was immediately arrested, and Vincent became a 7 year old prisoner. “For me, prison was like a school,” he says. They had fellow prisoners who served as teachers. After 3 months, the family was released, albeit with multiple restrictions: No passports, no educational opportunities, social distancing from friends and acquaintances who would risk persecution for any association with his family., No ability to rent a flat, etc. But over time, the restrictions eased somewhat after the second American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Vincent was able to finish high school and enter University at Latakia in 2009. “Those were the best 3 years of my life,” he laments nostalgically.
Then the Arab Spring happened in 2011. Initial circumstances seemed optimistic and encouraging, especially after apparent progress in Tunisia and Egypt. But then, the Assad regime put down an iron fist. Many of Vincent’s friends and neighbors and their entire families were slaughtered without any cause. Fellow students and friends were gunned down in the streets by snipers. Vincent continued in school for another year, but then conditions became too oppressive, so he had to leave university and flee for his life, having finished only 3 of his 4 years. He almost earned a degree in English literature, which is why he can now serve as one of our translators.
He went back to his hometown to his family and to hideout from security forces, who wanted him to serve in the Syrian Army. He hid out within the confines of his home in his small village for 3 years afraid to show his face outside: No job, no life no income no friends, etc.
Then family members with money offered him the financial means to take the chance to escape all this madness: to Turkey. And so he set off.
To get to Turkey, he had to cross Syrian territory that was occupied by Da’ish (ISIS). Unfortunately, he was captured, tortured and imprisoned for 2 months. Some of the torture he experienced included 10 days of sleep deprivation, being hung by his wrists suspended in the air for hours on end, being bludgeoned, being threatened with knives, gasoline and fire, electric shocks, etc. He was asked to recite verses from the Koran, and fortunately, he was able to do so, sufficiently. This probably saved his life, as he saw friends and comrades who had their necks slashed to death because they could not.
ISIS moved on to other torture victims and released him. Pressing onward to the Turkish border, he had to traverse mine fields, ISIS night patrols with mounted machine guns chasing them in the night and killing those behind him.
He made it across the border into Turkey, paying smugglers over a thousand dollars to bring him overland to Istanbul, then onward to Izmir. He paid other smugglers a thousand dollars more to take a harrowing rubber dinghy overfilled with refugees across the straits to the Greek Island of Chios. There he registered with the Greek government, received a 6 month visa and made it by ferry to Athens and the Greek mainland. After 13 days touring Athens, he took a train to Thessaloniki, then a bus, which dropped him off at Eko gas station, where he joined his “homies” (friends) in a tent. This is where he is now stranded. So with not much else to do, he is helping us take care of other Syrians who are sick.
Vincent has now given up any illusions about reaching Germany. His current hope is that he can somehow integrate himself here in Greece. Given what I now know, I see that it is better to have a warped sense of humor, than no sense of humor at all . . .
Now I understand what you tried to say to me
how you suffered for your sanity
how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
they did not know how
perhaps they’ll listen now.*
*From “Starry Starry Night”, Singer-Songwriter Don Mclean’s balad about Vincent Van Gogh, 1972
Dr. Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from North Central Washington. He has extensive experience in medical exchange programs in Veracruz, Mexico and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He is currently on assignment with Salaam Cultural Museum, a Seattle based nonprofit organization doing humanitarian and medical relief work with refugee populations in Lesbos and Idomeni, Greece.