Using Your Natural Gifts to Spread Love
This is a guest post by Paula Cipolla who recently provided dental care for refugees in Greece. I'm so thrilled she let me share her personal essay with you. It's a reminder that we all have natural gifts and abilities that can be used to spread love.
Putting a Face to Compassion: Spotlight on Refugees in Greece
Sometimes, after your eyes have been opened, you wish you were back in a time of innocence. This was my journal entry several days into a humanitarian trip to Greece.
Three weeks earlier, having heard a call for dentists to provide humanitarian care for refugees from Medical Teams International, some chords played on my heart strings, the stars aligned, and a plane whisked my dentist-husband, Dr Steven Albright, and me to Thessaloniki, Greece, where we began work the following day.
Our workday starts in Diavata, a 20-minute drive from the center of Thessaloniki. Entering the gated camp what strikes me are all the people just hanging about, without seemingly any purpose. The look of lethargy, resignation is broken by our greetings and their smiling response. A former military encampment, it’s rather stark. There are several buildings, one of which houses medical volunteers. Other volunteers, distinguished by humanitarian branded vests, are outside engaging rounded-up groups of kids in coloring or playing games. Rows of housing tents are set up one next to the other exposed in the hot sun, behind other buildings, close to rows of porta potties, and a wall with sinks and a long pipe of spigots. Nearby, a sizable distribution tent has been set up to hand out daily provisions.
The dental work space is a standard-sized shipping container close to the entry gate. Despite a blowing, newly installed air conditioner, the heat level is only slightly cooler than the 93 degrees outside. In that confined space, the heat and the dental equipment noise level peak into a discord of discomfort. We meet a team of United Kingdom volunteers on their last day at camp who get us settled in and acquaint us with the equipment. People show up at the door periodically with their dental complaint, a migrant volunteer chats back and forth in Arabic or Farsi into English. The care we’re providing is basic: fillings or temporary fillings, and extractions.
Over the days, we rotate from camp to camp in the northern outskirts of Thessaloniki providing this emergent dental care. At camp Vasilika, a vast, former chicken farm and warehouse now a refugee holding center, we met Hassan. In a small upstairs room converted for the day into our dental clinic, Hassan volunteers to act as our Arabic-English translator. Sporting a dental-ad-perfect easy smile, Hassan shares his story, his smile fading. Pulling his cell phone out of his pocket he points to a past photo of his city, Homs, Syria. This is what my city used to look like. Modern. Beautiful, right? This is what my city looks like now. Looking over his shoulder, a new photo appears, capturing empty shells of former buildings, gunmetal grey dust, concrete, metal. Nothing intact, the city almost unrecognizable through the rubble, the devastation of war.
A former student at Al-Hasakeh University in Syria, Hassan’s life became irrevocably altered from civil engineering studies to refugee activist. Trading laptop and calculator for camera and cell phone, Hassan began reaching out on Facebook, documenting what he sees and hears “so others can see what’s happening.”
What’s your plan? For now, “nothing to do but wait,” he comments.
And Hassan waits, along with his 18 year old sister, for a time when his brother in Germany, and his parents in Lebanon can reunite. He is one of approximately 1,200 people in Vasilika with similar stories. In the meantime, he advocates for better food in the camps (the refugees implemented a 3-day food strike to force a change in the food, which didn’t happen), open access to all volunteers who wish access to provide aid and friendship, and media attention for awareness of life in the camps and the plight of the refugees.
After the Greek military began compulsory evacuation of the Idomeni camp in May 2016, the largest camp near the Macedonia (FYROM) border, refugees were divided and shipped to several other camps further south. Straining from refugees already there, the camps were ill-equipped to receive additional people, relying heavily on support of NGO’s and volunteers from both within Greece and throughout the world.
I’d intended to write about dental care in the refugee camps but the real story is one of survival, a story of humanity and compassion, a human rights issue. Tens of thousands of refugees, 57,000 according to International Rescue Committee, of which according to UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) 48% are from the Syrian Arab Republic, most fled their homelands due to war. Greece, with its vast coastline has become an accessible entry point. It’s the shortest route via Turkey through Greece, most paying “transporters” to get them to their final destination further west, except, they’ve never made it to their final destination, only as far as Greece. This transitory stop has become an open cage. Free but not. With EU borders closed, they are stuck in one of a multitude of refugee camps. Unable to go back to their country due to war, unable to go forward due to closed borders, they wait, trapped, wondering what will happen next. No one wants to stay in Greece. Why? No work here. Greece’s unemployment hovers around 23.3% per statistics, April 2016. Where to? I continue to ask. The replies include Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, England, the U.S.A. Somewhere safe, somewhere prosperous.
Some have created their own businesses in the camps. At the Vasilika camp I am directed to a thriving falafel stand erected behind the vast warehouse. Assalamu alaikum (“peace be with you”) I greet the men behind the grill, hearing their smiling response in Arabic, wa alaikum assalaam (“and upon you, peace”), at the same time, tossing sizzling ingredients onto a wrapped flat bread, handing it to me. Efharisto (“thank you”) I comment in Greek, not knowing the Arabic equivalent.
Oreokastro camp, a former tobacco factory, is now another massive human warehouse with tents lined up as far as the eye can see. We set up clinic in an upstairs room accessed by a long staircase. The response to our initial call for patients is immediate, same as the other camps. Our dental translator is 16 year old Widad, a soft spoken, gentle presence. She’s here with her family which includes her 7 month old and 9 year old sisters. Learning English in school, her aborted study focus was computer technology. In Syria her dad owned a metal working shop. Here at the camps, “life is no good. No jobs, no money, food the same week after week.” Can I take your picture? ‘Yes, but don’t put it on Facebook,’ a reply I hear repeatedly. I was told the people don’t want others who they knew previously to see them in such destitute living conditions. Proudly, they recall their former middle-class lives as engineers, teachers, university students, plumbers, tailors, housewives.
Departing at day’s end, we see another enterprising fellow selling small electronics and gadgets as if at an open market. Where does he get these items? Who has money to buy them? Over the months away from home, whatever monies they took out of country have been exhausted, and while they are free to come and go without restriction, where would they go from these remote locations? All refugee provisions are donated. In Vasilika the food is provided by the air force according to Hassan, with the Greek military managing the camps. Neither the Greek military nor the debt-laden Greek government are in a position to handle the task and, in fact, it appears there’s no one overseeing the entire scope of this venture. At least, various overseas and Greek humanitarian aid groups with the support of individuals continue to rally to cope with the situation that appears as chaotic coexistence. The rest of the world seems to have turned its back, leaving Greece holding the ‘problem’ bag. Have the refugees become political pawns?
In Thessaloniki, Steve and I dine with a dentist colleague, Dr Kostas Arapostathis and his physician companion, Dr Myrto. Dr Kostas presents the Greek side of the equation outlining help the Greek government and individual citizens have provided. They personally have gone to the camps. Dr Kostas, as well as other Greek dentists, he says, have willingly provided dental care. Dr Myrto rounded up care packages she and friends gathered to drop off at collection sites. As the world’s attention diminishes, the situation seems to be evolving into a Greek “problem”. With so many people arriving all the time, the Greek government also seems to have lost control, even, in fact, if it did have some to begin with. Further, with Turkey becoming less stable, the question begs: how will Turkish citizens react? Will there be a new refugee group fleeing that country? As neighboring tensions mount, there’s more uncertainty, more questions rather than solutions.
In an article from the Athens newspaper Ekathimerini dated July 26, 2016, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO) called for closure of migrant centers following an inspection it carried out in 16 facilities, finding conditions in the camps pose a “public health risk.” “Cramming of hundreds of migrants into disused military barracks and industrial sites presents risks” which include inadequate ventilation, inadequate access to running water, the accumulation of large quantities of trash and waste. Of concern, it continued to state, were the previous uses of the warehouses, such as a former tannery which would “likely have high traces of toxic heavy metals” and “asbestos in its roofs”. Due to the remote locations, mosquitoes would be another health risk, it concludes. The Center’s recommendation was to “induct [the migrants] into Greek society.”
On July 27 Steve and I walked off the plane into a beautiful Seattle sunset. Home. Free.
We cherish a heart full of memories, not dental memories, rather, people memories, of Widad, Taha, Mustafa, Muhammed, Hassan and the others, and concern for what will become of them.
What do you hope for, Hassan, I had asked him? “You can’t stop violence with bombs and tanks. Don’t send bombs to my country.”
Which of the countries who have turned their backs on the refugee problem will turn around again to help find a solution.
Authored by Paula Cipolla
Photo credits: Paula Cipolla