This piece of writing has one thing in common with its subject matter – it doesn’t really belong where it’s ended up. It has no direct relevance to paediatric emergency medicine, so if you are here as a doctor please forget that for a moment and continue to read as a human, for it has every relevance in this respect.
I am not a martyr or a humanitarian of any standing. This piece has been written after a measly ten day stint volunteering in what is by all accounts one of the ‘nice’ refugee camps out of the hundreds – hundreds! that exist in Europe. A woman I met who had been working in the camp for several weeks (and before then, at many other camps in other places) said she doesn’t like to use the term ‘volunteer’ – with its hint of condescension and connotations of privileged gap-year tourists. She said she was there ‘to participate’.
Everyone – every refugee and every volunteer in the camp – is a participant. There is an equality in this way of thinking that acknowledges that we are all humans living through this time in history. Everyone has travelled miles from their homeland to be here but the circumstances of that travel and the decisions made could not be more different. For some, choice had vanished long ago and fleeing was imperative to survival. For the luckier ones amongst us, choices were made and questions were asked: should I go at all? Do I really want to do this? How long should I stay?
Those who have travelled with autonomy and made an active choice to participate are merely unfathomably fortunate that history did not play out in a different way. This could all be the other way round. Any possible number of forks in the road that fate did not take could have led you and your family to be the ones sleeping in a wind whipped tent on the concrete banks of a disused European port.
What is it like? There are over three thousand people and two thirds of them are children. Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis, Afghanis, Lebanese, Yazidis. Most have been there more than eight months, and there is no telling how much longer they must stay. It is flat, grey, dusty and litter strewn. Hot, windy, suddenly cold at night. Beautiful sunsets over the sea. There is tension, anger, boredom, fear and uncertainty, and there are unexpected moments of joy.
Dusk falls and a knife is pulled out as a fight escalates. Nearby, a giggling group of girls carries on their playground game regardless (haven’t they seen, or does this just not register on the scale of violence they have witnessed?)
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A curly-haired four year old in mismatched sandals walks – alone – across the whole camp to come for her daily bath in one of the NGO cabins. She sees one of the workers outside, starts running and falls over laughing as soon as she is over the doorway.
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The teenage girls have a dance session in a meeting room (six tracks on repeat, but no sign they will tire of these any time soon). The rhythmic sound of their feet drowns out the noise of the rocks the boys are hurling at the door out of sheer boredom.
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You walk past a group of young men sitting on the gravel floor, smoking, and they shout to you to come over. A split second reflex of fear will make you feel ashamed as moments later, one of them releases doves he is keeping in a makeshift coop, and you all watch them whirl in circles.
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After searching through all the clothes in stock, a mum regretfully hands over her toddler’s dirty but newish trousers and in return has to settle for a clean pair a fraction too small, with a hole in the knee. This is the clothing exchange, where you never own the clothes that in any other circumstance you would never choose.
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Two girls who you taught to make friendship bracelets recognise you from afar as you walk through camp to take dirty clothes to the laundry. They run over the broken concrete yelling ‘sister, hello sister!’
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A wild eyed boy with scars on his arm uses a corkscrew to scrape furiously at a newly painted wall. A new volunteer tells him to stop – he thrusts the corkscrew in the direction of her face and she bursts into tears. It’s her first day here.
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A smiling, university educated young man is celebrating because his friend successfully flew out of the country yesterday, travelling on a fake document. The assembled group baulks at the price – 4,500 Euros. ‘Yes, but for a new life…’
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Five years old but looking younger, with an earring in one ear and a grubby face. This scrappy boy, who speaks good English for someone who has never been to school, fights with another small child and runs away crying. Later he brings you a government-handout bread roll, which he calls a cookie, and insists you keep it to eat for your lunch.
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A woman in a headscarf is visibly stealing baby clothes from the charity store. You are equal parts pissed off that she would steal from others in need, and pissed off at yourself that your first reaction wasn’t one of pity in this desperate situation.
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If I was expecting to go and use my medical skills, on this occasion I would have missed the point (medical services were provided by a different organisation). If you can hold a paintbrush, if you have arms to lift and carry, if you can kick a football, if you can smile, sort, tidy, clean – I think this is the ‘participation’ which the woman was describing. Tiny, tiny things, but somehow, perhaps not insignificant. Drops in the ocean.
While I was there, a camp nearby was attacked three nights running by an extremist right-wing terrorist group with petrol bombs. Tents burned, police stood by, then arrested thirty refugees.
Coming to work the next day we were weighed down with shame that fellow humans in the same country could act with such hate. Nobody from the camp mentioned it, but what must they have been feeling towards our society, where they have come to seek safety, that could allow this to happen to people who have already fled unimaginable trauma?
My unrealistic hope is that all who are currently existing in that place will one day be able to forget the entire miserable experience and move on to have happy, productive and peaceful lives wherever they end up. If they are unable to erase the bad memories, then I hope that amongst these jagged pieces there will remain a fragment reassuring them that not all Europeans wished them harm, and that some came to participate.
Donate to, (or volunteer/participate with) A Drop In The Ocean: http://www.drapenihavet.no/en/home/