Ambushed!

International work, medical or otherwise, is dangerous. Maybe only a little more dangerous than normal American life, maybe quite a lot. A long-term Christian missionary doing really, really good work was gunned down in Haiti just today.

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About as remote as it gets.

I myself have done relief work in Haiti. One of the places I worked is located in the hills of a village-esque area called Noyau. This place is about as remote from civilized life as I can recall being in my life.

After an hour of 4WD driving on extremely-rough dirt switchbacks up a mountainside, we pulled on packs and hiked for another hour+ to reach the area of our clinic. If something went wrong out there, the time required to receive aid would exceed 4 hours easily. Assuming emergency crews had access to a 4WD vehicle, which is doubtful.

I recall thinking, as well over 100 Hatians stared at us zipping ourselves into our expensive tents and sleeping bags at the end of a clinic day, how honorable they were as a people. They had hiked for many hours to find our clinic, and often the only thing we had to offer them upon their arrival was a few TUMS tablets. Frequently their medical problems were either too complex for us to help with, or, more commonly, we simply didn’t have the medicine or procedural ability they needed.

But they could have robbed us. Selling our nice North Face and Sierra Designs gear would have fetched an impressive price in Port au Prince. Furthermore, they could have kidnapped us and held us for ransom. Now we’re talking real money. Until they talked to my wife, who would probably say something like, “Take ‘im. Never does the dishes anyway.”

We were totally vulnerable in that village. But the reason, I believe, nothing bad happened was simply because most Hatians are good people. Honorable people. Honorable, even, by my wealthy American standards, where respect for property and life is alive and well. They let me keep my nice tent, even though they couldn’t be sure of their next meal.

Similarly, while working in the Galatsia camp on our 3rd day in Athens, I ended up in an extremely vulnerable position. Again, we came out unscathed largely because most people are, quite simply, good.

Prior to entering the camp, I asked one of my team members with military training to effectively serve as our “security.” He took his role seriously: identifying sight-lines, exits, areas of risk, areas of relative safety. He developed rudimentary emergency plans, identified key leaders in the facility and communicated escape plans to our team.

But for some reason, when I was asked to leave our clinic to go see a patient reportedly too sick to walk to us, I didn’t think to ask our security guy to come with us. In “medical mode,” it’s difficult to think in “safety mode” too. Our task is to meet needs, not protect ourselves, and the thinking between the two is often very different.

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See all the people? That lady in blue is an aide worker. Behind me was a large room, a courtyard, and a line of police. I thought we were going here.

I also believed we would be going to one of the large rooms with lots of people, located near the entrances, near the police, organizers, aides and managers.

That’s not where we went.

Led by the sick woman’s husband, we walked down corridor after corridor. Branching off from each of the primary hallways were other halls, down which I saw a half-dozen young Middle Eastern men, crouched against the wall, all looking at me. The halls were strewn with trash, cell phones hanging by cords from every available outlet. I heard yelling, some laughing, but mostly saw numerous drawn, emotionless, bored faces. There was no joy.

I went with our clinic organizer (a Persian woman who organized the whole medical clinic, speaks numerous languages, and knows what she’s doing) and, as luck would have it, the pastor of the local Calvary Chapel we’re working with who saw us wandering away and followed. So at least I wasn’t alone.

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This happened in the Philippines just last month. However improbable, we could have rounded the corner and found guns and flags, not a patient.

But after the 3rd corridor, and up a large flight of stairs, then outside the building and then back into it and around a corner, I knew that if someone wanted to do us harm, they would have succeeded. We’d followed this guy like ducklings.

But he didn’t harm us. All the man wanted was to know if his wife would be OK, and if it might be possible to get her on her feet by that evening, in hiking condition. He intended to continue his journey into Europe as soon as he could.

I diagnosed viral gastroenteritis and told him she may be ready to roll by that evening, but giving it another day or two would be better. He clearly intended to leave that night, despite what I’d said.

Later, of course, we laughed about this. Our team leader, Sahar, laughed at me for being so worried.

But the truth is that there is no way to do this work without incurring some amount of risk. Usually the risk is small, thanks largely to the fact that although there is terror and violence in the world, most humans on this planet are good, fairly honest people. Most are just trying to make a better life for themselves and their children.

As are we all.

Galatsi

On day 3 we left our makeshift clinic in the 2nd Evangelical Church of Athens to work in one of the main refugee “camps” in town. But it isn’t a campground. It’s one of the main stadia used in the 2004 Olympics, located in the Galatsi suburb of Athens.

The story of how this stadium came to be used for refugees is emblematic of the refugee crisis in generally. The stadium has been shuttered for years, no lights, no electricity. But with thousands of people suddenly camping in parks all over Athens, the people of the city were understandably upset. Furthermore, anti-immigration groups were organizing and preparing potentially-violent opposition to the influx.

So the Minister of Immigration apparently decreed that refugees would be moved to the Olympic Stadium. Only then was the mayor of Galatsi notified of the dictate, while also being told that he was, in fact, in charge of the stadium.

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Queuing up for lunch. The food I saw was a step up from David Copperfield-esque porrige, but not by much.

On balance, it’s a good plan. There is lots of room there, the people and tents are out of the parks and off the sidewalks. The Greek Army (I think) has been tasked with feeding the refugees 3x per day, an endeavor equal to any reasonably-trained Army. It also protects Greek political leaders from human rights criticisms, since the people are being cared for while not upending entire neighborhoods.

There is both massive influx and efflux of people from the stadium every day. Nobody intends to stay for long; the Greek government does not plan on operating the facility indefinitely either.

We were given an emergency medical license under which I could function as a de facto Greek doctor on days when I worked at any of the camps. We were asked, really more like begged, to work at the Galatsi camp because over 1000 people were there, with hundreds requesting a doctor.

Here are some observations from that day:

  • 5
    Lots of people, all trying to help. Not a lot of organization.

    We worked out of a small room, filled with donated medicines, even some supplies. It was better-appointed than I expected. It was cramped, sweaty and regularly filled with people for myriad reasons. A hazy notion of ‘organization’ came and went throughout the day.

  • We infuriated the Greek doctor, a pulmonologist, who is overseeing the medical room in the camp. We had been “begged” by the ministry of immigration to come work that day. She was never notified. So our presence was a surprise to her. She wasn’t, however, working. Nobody was. She showed up, yelled at us about attending a strategy meeting in a few days, hung around for a bit, then left.
  • The Greek Government is doing better with this crisis than reported. There
    greecemap
    Areas around Greece where people are helping with the refugee crisis either directly or by collecting donations, etc. Click this pic for an interactive map.

    were police on the campus (until later in the afternoon, when they apparently lost interest and wandered away). There were GIANT piles of clothes in the “clothes section,” and everyone had food at mealtimes. The camping areas were dry and were clean if the refugees cleaned up after themselves (some did, some didn’t). But the same Greek Government has relied heavily on individual donors, NGO’s and privately-funded clinics like ours’ to make this some sort of controlled chaos.

  • Before we started, I watched a T.V. reporter van pull up next to a nice black car, out of which stepped some guy in a suit. The camera started rolling as the guy stood next to a reporter-looking person. There was a quick interview, then some panning shots of the facility. Then the guy got back in his car and drove away. I found out later this was some politician getting time on T.V. “working” at the camp. This is happening on the local Greek news, with dignitaries, including local doctors, posing as helpers in this crisis.
  • The majority of refugees in the camps and on the streets are from Afghanistan and Iran, not Syria. In general, the Syrians have more money and are staying in rented apartments. Usually, those apartments are being sub-let (for a substantial profit) by other refugees. It’s a dog-eat-dog environment.
  • 4
    Quite a few meds. No smokable opium. No opium t all, in fact.

    I saw a patient with back pain who was smoking opium for pain control. He said he didn’t want narcotics for his pain, but also said nothing else worked for him. As our clinic absolutely has no narcotics of any kind, we offered him some non-narc alternatives. He left, unhappy, then returned later, forcing his way through the scrum outside to “complain” about our “service.” Apparently narc-addiction and the behavior it engenders knows no social or ethnic boundaries.

  • Our clinic lead, the Persian woman who organizes these clinics (a refugee herself 15 years ago), wisely did NOT allow advertising when we started our clinic day. Just by word of mouth alone, we were nearly overwhelmed with a shouting, occasionally-pushy mass of people that formed outside our “clinic” shortly after we opened for business. HUGE credit to a great team in front of me to help control and direct the traffic outside.
  • The Mayor of Galatsi, and manager of the camp, is not a happy man. The Greeks dislike him because he’s helping refugees invade their country. The refugees don’t like him because he oversees a camp perpetually under-resourced. The political class over runs him, taking their own photo-ops and garnering the credit for the work being done there. When I met him in the camp, he half-shook my hand, then tersely told me to “get to work.” Can’t blame him.

I was worried to work here for a host of reasons, but I’m glad I went. I wish we could spend more time in the camps. Getting patients to our clinic at the church was a big challenge. No problem here.

Tomorrow We Leave

We leave for the refugee clinic in Athens tomorrow.

I intended to blog the step-by-step story for how we arrived at this point. But THAT didn’t happen.

Here are some specifics:

wpid-wp-1443899443776.jpeg-We intend to see approximately 30 patients per day for a week, working half-days on Monday and Friday. I suspect we’ll end up seeing many more than this.
-We will be working in an abandoned church in downtown Athens. We’re staying in a Youth Hostel a short distance away.
-We have access to labs, Xray (maybe?) and some medications but I’m not sure which ones.
-I’ll be using an antique oto/opthalmoscope manufactured by the Riester Company, which was based in, you guessed it, Germany.
-We plan to see Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees. There could be many others.
-On the last day we will likely go into a refugee tent camp and set up our medical clinic there.
-Donations continue to roll in, to date over $6000.
-I’m not without a sense of concern. It isn’t lost on me that Americans aren’t the most popular people in the world today, especially in the lands where these people are coming from. On this, the night before our departure, I’m keenly aware of all that I leave behind, and all I hope to see again soon.

Your thoughts and prayers are most appreciated.