Adventures — 8 March 2016 at 9:49 pm

Lifejackets on the Beach

Hannah Evans / GP Trainee / Scotland

There is bottleneck of refugees in Greece at the moment. The Macedonian border is closed. One hundred thousand more are predicted to arrive over the coming months. Having repeatedly watched the arrivals on the news, Dr Hannah Evans decided to volunteer. In the week that the Calais ‘Jungle’ is bulldozed, here is her moving account.

I raid my rucksack and, bleary-eyed post nightshift, remove the clothing I had so carefully packed the evening before. The formalwear for the conference I was planning to attend is replaced quickly with a makeshift medical kit, gathered hurriedly in the dimly-lit spare room and swaddled around some cold-weather gear. With minutes to spare I board the flight to London with the promise of a further flight to Greece that evening.  I’ve been watching the news for weeks, feeling useless and repeatedly imagining ‘what if that was my family?’.

On the overnight flight to Greece, I try to read on the plane, but cannot concentrate for thinking about the challenge that lies ahead. What will it be like? How will I be able to help with only a hastily collected medical kit? What sort of a difference will I be able to make, if any, in a week?


We touchdown in Mytilini, the main port of the Island of Lesbos, a picturesque hub for Greek island travellers. The sea glints in the October sunshine and I catch my first glimpse of the iconic lifejackets, which plague the news and litter the shoreline.

After making contact with a volunteer who is already on the ground, I am escorted to the camp. The first thing that hits me is the litter, worse than anything after a music festival and smelling so terrible that it overpowers the fragrant sea breeze. Several carts, selling food and necessities are set up at the entrance by local people, trying to make some cash via inflated prices. The camp is a disused military barracks with some accommodation quarters: a depressing grey building set in olive groves in a small place called Moria.

Moria is where all arrivals must obtain what is essentially a piece of paper to register as a refugee. This process seems so protracted, with some families waiting three days to obtain it. Three days in this place must seem like a lifetime. The initial registration produces a numbered ticket, the numbers called out in order over the next 24-72 hours. Once your number is called out you are ushered into a queue and await the formal registration process.

Day 1

The first day is about finding my feet, taking it all in and helping dole out the meagre rations of biscuits, nappies and blankets we have. We walk around the camp. Cheap pop-up tents sit side by side. In between, plastic packaging lies discarded everywhere, mixed in with the mud on the ground from yesterday’s rainfall.

We distribute nappies and sanitary towels to families sitting in the mud, amongst the tents. One mother asks for a doctor; I rush over with my rucksack to find her son, a cute little boy of about two or three with blisters around his mouth. These look like herpes virus or cold sores, massively inflamed and made worse by sunburn, and certainly the worst I’ve seen on a toddler. I don’t have much to offer, only advice to stay out of the sun. They don’t appear infected, but if I had some child-friendly antibiotics I would have given them to her.

Continuing through the mess of mud and waste, we encounter another family who call me into their tent. Their baby has a cold and isn’t feeding well. They ran out of milk powder two days ago, but the child looks well hydrated. They give me an empty bottle and I go on a quest to find a supply of milk powder for them. After about thirty minutes of asking around, I find a tub kept locked away in an office. The next struggle is to find a kettle or a source of warm water to make up the bottle with. I eventually borrow keys to another office, make up the bottle and bring it back to the family along with a small supply of milk powder for the next few feeds.

The first day has already lasted 14 hours. I’m dead on my feet. Staying late at work is the norm for doctors in the UK. My partner and I have long stopped negotiating an optimistic time to have dinner together, but I can’t go home to my hotel yet.

A Bed for the Night

There is news that the barracks buildings may be available to take some of the most vulnerable families out of the rain and mud that night. I stay and help clear out the dirty mattresses from the bunk bed frames and give the bedrooms a basic clean. We then head back out into the olive grove to identify those most in need. Our initial criteria is to encourage families with young children and babies to come inside, however doing this without attracting too much attention is near impossible.

We find a family with three young children but soon enough several others pleading their case surround us. Everyone has different vulnerabilities and good reasons to need shelter. As difficult as it is, we acknowledge their plight and tell them to stay where they are as someone will come back if there is room once the families are catered for. This is a drill that will repeat every night; a mixture of fulfilment and guilt that someone remains in the cold.

It is nearly December. Although there is a sunny reprieve for a few hours, the nights are getting bitterly cold. The air is filled with the smell of burning plastic. Any plastic waste which will burn is used as fuel for fires, in order to warm freezing hands and feet. I can’t count how many people I see suffering with sore throats and coughs, likely from inhaling highly contaminated air.

I choose to stay out of the inevitable politics of running a camp. So many volunteers with good intentions, but lacking coordination and a steady supply of consumables to dole out. Nothing is ever straightforward.

Amongst the tents

We decide to wander amongst the tents in the surrounding olive grove.

Very quickly, a cry from a tent pierces the evening smog and brings with it a familiar tone. I guess that the perpetrator can’t be more than a few months old.

We call out outside the tent and a lady unzips the canvas door. She reveals a tiny, 25-day-old, heavily swaddled baby in her arms.  She tells me, through a translator, that she is experiencing some abdominal pain after her Caesarean section and asks if I could examine her abdomen. She is not breastfeeding and relying on handouts of milk powder.

The situation in Syria had been so bad, she had seen her village destroyed and experienced loss beyond imagination for her twenty-three years of life. I give her some analgesia and while I examine her, another few portions of formula are obtained.  We negotiate for them to get into the barracks that evening. I walk away, shaken with what I have seen.

I go back to my hotel room and cry myself to sleep.

Going Dutch

I sleep poorly. The next day I join a group of Dutch nurses who have arrived and we set up a ‘drop in clinic’ in the camp. They have brought a huge supply of basic medications and first aid supplies. We instantly click and make a brilliantly functional team. They highlight the fact that I know no Dutch, and I give them advice about the more complex of presenting problems. We meet some fantastic young refugees who translate for us for the whole afternoon.

I decide to stay later into the evening to meet the Human Appeal doctor who is in camp later at night. He is a UK graduate who dedicates his time working in conflict zones and areas of great humanitarian need. He speaks good Farsi and so we work through some consultations together. Understandably, there is so much anxiety, being in an unfamiliar country with nothing of your own and on top of that, to be unwell.

His makeshift office is on the outskirts of the barracks compound, which is enclosed by high fences and bolted gates. Some refugees used the fact that there was a doctor inside to get entry into the compound by feigning illness and then trying to dart through into the barracks. I can hardly blame them.

The local police have received a lot of negative publicity, however they have a job to do. They are working with people who are desperate and who do not speak the same language. It seems obvious that this is going to lead to frustration, and so conflict at times. The police try and maintain order in the queue to registration. I can’t say that I experienced much negativity from them. Most of the police officers I spoke with were sympathetic to the plight of the refugees.

Half way through my week, we are blessed with a Farsi speaker from London who has flown out to do what she can. This sudden new ability to communicate lifts my spirits and fuels my determination. We spend more time distributing snacks and toys, using the opportunity to get an overview of the general health of the family and treat where we can.

Our translator is asked to accompany the police and psychiatrist to the hospital – another boat has capsized leaving several lost at sea and families divided.

The psychiatrist has been flown in from Jordan and is accompanied by a psychologist, trying to help those who have experienced loss in such an acute sense; forced to watch their babies disappear into the darkness, into the sea. I cannot comprehend how you try to understand or help with that.   We manage to pair up some photos of children in the hospital with photos on phones of anxiously awaiting relatives. This feels like a small triumph, especially when reuniting the families.

What if it was my family?

Some people I meet are angry, seething that they are forced to wait in such squalid conditions, that they must wait to register and that everyday consumables are expensive. Others are distraught, displaying delayed grief reactions or real raw grief over those lost or separated. Some are just numb.

The tales told about the boats from Turkey are extraordinary. People describe being asked to pay sums in excess of 1500 Euros by threatening traffickers holding AK47s, urging more and more refugees into the boats when they were clearly over capacity already. What would you do if that were the only perceived way to safety? The boats are nothing more than a thicker, larger inflatable dinghy reminiscent of those my sister and I played in the sea with on a childhood holiday.

When I return, UK medicine angers me for the first few weeks. Demand is so high, expectation so great, frustration often over such trivial things and no reprieve in sight. It makes me want to give those with overly-unrealistic expectations or demands a glimpse of what is happening on our doorstep.

Life is so precious. Compassion costs nothing. I bite my tongue and plan my next trip to Greece.

Visit the International Rescue Committee (IRC) Greece page for updates on the situation. Click here for our recent article on working in the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp.