The following is a guest post from Valerie Hellerman, Executive Director of Hands on Global, a registered US based non profit working both domestically and internationally with the mission to contribute hands on assistance to communities around the globe for sustainable development of medical, environmental, and educational projects. Valerie Hellerman is a long-time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and a Unitarian Universalist. The following was offered as a sermon at the lay-led Big Sky Unitarian Fellowship in Helena, Montana on Sunday, February 18, 2018.
I am so Raw. Heartbroken. Wounded.
I witnessed an unimaginable humanitarian crisis. Along with 4 other members of a Hands On Global medical team we answered a call to go to Greece We worked at the Moria Refugee camp on the Island of Lesvos. It is here most refugees arrive in rubber boats crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. It is one of 12 refugee camps in Greece. Morai camp originally an old military prison built to house 2500 now is a UNHCR refugee camp with a population over 7000. There is a spillover into an adjacent olive grove with over 1000 people.
Refugees predominantly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and 17 other countries are inside the 3 layers of razor wire where they are housed in an ISO box (a shipping container with one door and one window. There are up to 22 people in an iso box.
There are summer camping tents with tarps strewn in between the boxes and on concrete walkways and a thousand more in the olive grove. There are 2 shower rooms in the entire camp of 7000 people. Many have not been able to shower for months. The few toilets are grossly overused , dirty, dangerous for women and spewing raw sewage. In the olive grove camp there is only one outdoor cold shower from a hose set up in the bush and 9 port a potties. Garbage and plastic bottles are not strewn around the camp but piled high spilling over.
Basic Needs are unmet daily. People have to queue up for food a MRE similar to a military ration and food runs out daily. There is tension and arguments.There are 2 other NGOs giving 250 -300 hot meals 5-6 days a week near the camp but there is a hierarchy of vulnerability; pregnant women and children, elders, those with disabilities, chronic disease, families. The most vulnerable get to eat. The single men are the last to be fed.
People have to queue up for clothing too and that can take 5 days to get a coat, shoes, socks, underwear. The refugee warehouse run by a Syrian refugee Omar and staffed with international volunteers can only handle the distribution for 200 people a day - there are over 8000 . A 2 liter Water bottle rations is distributed daily to each refugee that is over 8000 plastic bottles a day contributing to the overflowing garbage and environmental disaster in the camp.
Needs are regularly unmet and people hear “no I can’t help you today, no I can’t help you tomorrow and maybe I can’t help you at all. “ There is an administrative process to registering refugees , they first need to register with the UNHCR and get an identity card then they must have an interview in their language with a certified translator. They get a first stamp which authorizes them for food water .The stamp process can take weeks, years. They must prove who they are, many have lost their documents during their exodus and many of the universities and businesses have stopped functioning or have been destroyed so proving your education or resume can be impossible. Imagine how difficult to prove your identity without documents. Then there is the process of getting 2 other stamps, different levels of identity, and asylum potentials People end up waiting for months even years in the camp.
Medical care inside the camp is limited to 50 people a day and the queue for a number begins at 4am . People were given basic meds if available and then prescriptions for chronic conditions, which they had no money to buy nor transportation to a pharmacy. We saw this over and over. There is an evening clinic for emergencies.
MSF, Drs Without Borders had been working inside Moria and moved out in protest to the inhumane conditions. They made a guarded tent clinic outside the main gate where they treated only women and children. The NGO Docmobile, German based had a daily clinic at another NGO site called Happy Family, a 40 min walk away. That was the medical care available for 8000 people.
We took on treating the single men and those in the olive grove who were in the greatest need for medical care.
Refugees for refugees was setting up a tent for us but due to security we decided to do a mobile clinic. And so we rented a Hertz van, took out the back seats, folded down the middle, bought bins for pharmacy and became this “gorilla” medical van. Members of our team had worked together on 4 other missions. We could count on each other. We knew how to improvise in low resource situations we knew we would we work well together.
For 17 days we showed up daily treating an average of 60 pts a day, one day over 80. I do want to note that we had had our licenses translated into Greek and registered our ngo in Greece with the Mytilini police, we were not totally rogue.
Dr Mark Ibsen examined pts in the back of the van with great kindness, asking each person through a translator How may I serve you? He treated every patient with great dignity. He did dressings crouched on the ground or on his knees and always gave his full attention to each person. He often was visibly shaken seeing the physical signs of torture, beatings, and bomb blasts. There was always one more patient which was really sometimes 10 more. He only stopped when truly exhausted.
Tama Adelman an RN, Vietnam Vet, did pharmacy from the folded down middle seat. She could hear Dr Mark’s assessments and worked in tandem bagging and labeling the medications for the patients. She stayed on top of pharmacy needs and made rounds of Mytilini pharmacies for restocking antibiotics, paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain, creams for fungus and scabies. Everyone got 30 days of high potency multi vitamins. Tama’s competency was critical to our moving through 60 patients a day. Within 24 hours of my post on facebook for needing more funds for meds we received enough money to restock for 5 days. Thank you!
Karen Cooper, the massage therapist on our team is from here in Helena. She did 100’s of massages on an inflatable camping mat or a cement bench or plastic chair. For those in pain from physical injuries from torture and those with PTSD her hands were a healing human touch. It was always heartwarming to look over and see her working.
Brian Ibsen, Dr Ibsen’s brother was our driver and general assistant. Fluent in French he translated for the Africans and we were able to share stories with them. Brian was our initial entrance into the African camp. He was also very well educated on the history and the events leading to this crisis.
Our Translators magically appeared, They were refugees wanting to help. We had translations in Farsi, Arabic, French, Dari.
I did Triage. I got to meet and greet each person, in line . I introduced myself and asked their name, age, their country were they sick or injured? I gave each a numbered card, took their vital signs and queried them about their health issues; what happened, where, how long, This often led to conversation about their country their family, their sadness.
Their health issues were mostly chronic pain related to torture or post injury from bomb blasts, poor health from deplorable prison conditions. We treated a lot of pneumonia’s, there was a nasty flu/virus in the camp. It was cold and damp and people had inadequate shelter. There were gastric issues, many dental issues, poor diets, unmanaged hypertension diabetes. There were cases of chicken pox, measles and pertussis. There was no dental services. There was stress and PTSD.
There are 8000 people with PTSD in Morai Camp , wounded in body and mind. There are no mental health services. Just about everyone complained of inability to sleep , nightmares , night terrors. Dr Mark did some basic acupuncture for ptsd and Karen did massage. These fellow human beings have fallen into just about every crack in the universe, they are so wounded physically, emotionally, spiritually.
I often felt I couldn’t breathe seeing their pain looking into their eyes, seeing the scars on their backs their broken bones from beatings, the burns and shrapnel scars from bomb blasts. The pain and loneliness of missing and murdered family. It was heart wrenching every minute. It was a challenge to stay centered and focused. Our team supported each other through this labyrinth of suffering and we kept each other focused on our task to give care hand to hand and heart to heart. We supported each others breakdowns.
I kept my heart open with Buddhist practice. And I met each refugee heart to heart.
WHO ARE these refugees ?
They are fellow humans, they could be you, me, they could be our children, our aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, our neighbors.
It happened to them, It happened in their country! It could happen to us. It could happen in our country!
They have lived Honorable lives, had Honorable jobs. Their lives have been interrupted by years, decades of war, bombs falling from the skies and IEDs blowing up in the streets. Compounded by ruthless dictators and fundamentalist zealots like ISIS, Boku Haram and the Taliban. They have been living in fear of being arrested and imprisoned, fearing their sons being stolen for soldiers and daughters stolen raped and enslaved. Living in their country is a death sentence.
They are running for their lives. Millions leaving their homes with nothing, walking for months over difficult terrain, crossing armed borders, risking capture and imprisonment, then getting onto a rubber boat meant for 10 packed with up to 50 risking the Aegean sea crossing where 1000s have drowned.
They arrive to LIVE. They arrive seeking a new honorable life. And they are brought to an overcrowded camp in deplorable conditions. Moria is like a prison.
I want to tell you about some of these people I met
Khalid- we had heard there was a Dr from Syria in the olive grove. So we excitedly asked for him to join us and he said Oh I am a Dr of Literature. He spoke perfect English, he became our Arabic translator.
He is an educated intellectual, suspicious under Assad's regime. He was arrested as the university shut down, imprisoned , tortured. After many months released to find his neighborhood bombed out and his family nowhere to be found, I heard many times of family members who were LOST, maybe dead. When a neighborhood is bombed where were the children? out playing? were they still in school? Were they in their home? Was the mother/wife inside cooking or maybe she had gone to the market and was saved. Often times their bodies are found in the rubble but not all . Were they brought to a hospital, was the hospital bombed. Where are they? These questions are often never answered.
And there were no answers for Khalid . He looked desperately waited and finally he fled Syria, walked across the border to Turkey. He was caught on the border and imprisoned . He was housed for months in a cell, a cell so small with so many others they could only squat, there was no room to lie down for months. They waited for their turn in the torture room listening to the screams of those ahead of them. Finally released he crossed in an overloaded boat to Greece. He is a slight man, gentle, kind, hunched over with painful back and leg issues, somewhat malnourished and with the most desperate sadness in his eyes.
An Iraqi woman, a former school teacher in her 30s clearly well educated, speaking very good English, a middle class woman, brought her mother to our gorilla van. She and her mother the only survivors of an extended family of 12. Her mother close to my age had huge nodules in her neck and axilla, weight loss, looked anemic. Dr Ibsen examined her and thought lymphoma, without dx tools we couldn’t be sure and we could not do anything. The likely hood of her being treated was zero. Maybe she would be admitted into the poorly equipped district Mytilini hospital, but chemo? Long term cancer treatment? doubtful. I am haunted by the circumstance that puts this woman at the end of her life- not in her home, not in her country, not with her community, but alone with only one surviving daughter, mourning their losses and living in an iso box with 20 strangers… I hugged her, she grabbed both my hands kissed them and kissed my cheeks saying Shukria. Thank you Salaam my sister.
A tired sad eyed man from the Congo, 28 years old complained of weight loss, intermittent fever, night sweats and coughing up blood for several months. Sure symptoms of TB, a diagnosis that will shut him out of asylum in almost every country, so rather than being taken to a country that can treat and cure him of TB he will be deported, back to the country he fled and in his case that could be an immediate imprisonment and a death sentence. This man with probable active TB is living in a summer tent with 28 others. Not good for him. Not good for them.
Another African man Herve, who we saw many times as we changed his foot dressings. He was from the Cameroon. Apparently a well known rap singer , dancer and performer. He told us how to find his recording on youtube. Apparently his rap was critical of the regime. He received death threats , his parents were murdered and he fled for his life. He entered Turkey illegally, he was sent to a prison and beaten so badly on the bottom of his feet bones were broken, he limped up to our van using a crutch needing pain medication for his damaged feet; he will never dance again. He complained of night terrors and waking up screaming from sl
Basir one of our Arabic translators is a chemist. A really bright man in his mid 40’s. He had worked in a hospital lab in Syria. He fled after his hospital was bombed and his community destroyed. He became distant and said no more about himself or his family. He worked with us for many days translating.
Another young Syrian father asking for food because his children were crying with hunger. We found him some food and he showed us a phone and used an Arabic translation app ”Please get me out of here, Please help me” We could not
The most heart wrenching and powerful moment for me was the morning I had put some rose oil on. A young man on the triage line said “you smell like my mother” “I said well then let me give you a mothers hug” We hugged tightly, for a long while, both of us shedding tears. His mother had been murdered, he was a young man alone with no family desperately trying to find a new life. We were heart to heart and I am so grateful to have been given that opportunity to give a mothers love in those moments.
This is all so heartbreaking and with story after story it is hard not to focus on the misery. But somehow the human spirit prevails and people continue on in their grieve and their pain with inherent dignity and an amazing resiliency There is a strong desire to survive and to seek normalcy.
It was so important for us to accept their invitations to tea. It is normal to invite your friends to tea, and so we went to their tent and we accepted the food they offered us with dignity, sharing friendship.
I want to say a few words about the Greek people and particularly the people of Mytilini. In the winter 2015 they awoke to over 13000 refugees arriving on their shores each day, for months, now years though the recent numbers decreased. They were cold wet hungry and sleeping on every doorsteps and in the roadways. The people of this Island responded by feeding clothing and assisting these people. The people of Mytilini jumped into the sea assisting people off the boats. Led by the mayor of the Island they responded to the call of history and set up the first camp ahead of the UN.
Despite the poor Greek economy their borders remain open. They want to help the refugees and everyone I spoke to was appalled by the situation at the Morai Camp They want better for the refugees. But they are alone. Where is the EU Where is the US in stepping up to this crisis?
The analogy the mayor gave me was the Greeks are in an Olympic Weight lifting match and they are lifting the heaviest weight. They are Waiting for the judges to say ok you can put it down. But there is silence and Greece is left holding this crisis. And Italy is currently experiencing a similar crisis with refugees crossing from Libya.
We must respond to this huge humanitarian crisis It continues to grow. It is out of our news cycle but it is going on. There are over 65 million refugees according to the UNHCR. It is a global problem and we need global accountability. We live in a country that has directly been involved with waging war on foreign lands and supporting ruthless dictatorships for resource control or gain.
Short of changing the world order as we know it I don’t know how it will be solved. I have to put my faith in the belief that we do this one person one step at a time, one by one. Today I ask you to bear witness to my witness, lets work on our legislation to change immigration policies, to support the United Nations Refugee programs, to support NGOs working in the fields like Hands On Global. We need to refuse to support the war machine and an economy that has a constant need to wage war. We need to do this because we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings.
Hands On Global is a registered US based non profit working both domestically and internationally. Our mission is to contribute hands on assistance to communities around the globe for sustainable development of medical, environmental, and educational projects. We work hand to hand and heart to heart.
Valerie Hellermann, Executive Director