Tuesday 12 December 2017

Mission of mercy - the Irish doctor helping in a squalid refugee camp

The lost, sick, malnourished and traumatised all gravitate towards Sligo doctor Conor Kenny, seeking cures and solace in the squalid refugee camp at Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonia border. It's a place that has become a postcard for Europe's disgraceful ­handling of the migration crisis.

Reaching out: Conor Kenny with an elderly woman.
Reaching out: Conor Kenny with an elderly woman.
Syrian parents Ihrahim and Piman with their children Helin (7), Ivan (9) and Samah (5).
Stuck in limbo: Some of the tented homes at Idomeni.
Two women walking through the camp at Idomeni.

Joe Callaghan

The winds picked up again in Idomeni this week and people with no homes saw their plastic ones blown away. In the tiny outpost village, perched on the northern precipice of Greece, it is your home, rather than your hope, which floats.

Spring has fully sprung across Europe, but the changing of the seasons has brought little in the way of respite in this corner of the continent. Anguish springs eternal in Idomeni. For the more than 10,000 refugees who now reside in a place with an official population still listed as 154, the winds don't carry any semblance of change.

Around 550 kilometres north of Athens, the village is just metres from the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. But for the exhausted refugees - primarily Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi - who have made it this far along the Balkan Route to the EU, these shortest yards are proving the hardest. Macedonia has put up its walls and all but closed its doors. So in squalid surrounds, quite literally bogged down, they now wait.

They are trapped between two worlds - one that was out to destroy them and one that would seem to prefer not to save them. A place that has rapidly become the postcard for Europe's awful handling of its migration crisis, Idomeni equals limbo.

Syrian parents Ihrahim and Piman with their children Helin (7), Ivan (9) and Samah (5).
Syrian parents Ihrahim and Piman with their children Helin (7), Ivan (9) and Samah (5).

In the wake of a refugee pact between the European Union and Turkey that looks deeply flawed, limbo now feels like it's padlocked. Seeping, muddied corridors of makeshift shelters criss-cross out from the railway lines that bisect a camp originally intended as only a very temporary stop for no more than 1,000 souls. Now inundated, things are being stretched beyond breaking point.

Light can seem like it's in short supply. But that doesn't stop those determined to keep looking for it.

Dr Conor Kenny has been in Idomeni for just over a month. His first mission with Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) has brought him to ground zero in Europe's refugee crisis. While a significant number of those who come daily seeking the Sligo native's help at MSF's clinic are suffering from illnesses related to poor living conditions at the camp, an ever-increasing number are struggling with mental-health issues - from living in war zones, arduous journeys and languishing in a squalid camp.

"This camp is the first stop that a lot of these people have taken for a long time on their journeys, the first chance to unload," he tells Review after another hectic shift in the clinic - there seems to be no other kind. "Before this, they may have spent a week or two in another village here and there on their journey from Syria or wherever. But now this is it, they've been here for over a month and we can see more and more people presenting to us with mental health issues.

"We're hearing simply incredible tales of survival, but of hardship and intense suffering. So there's a huge amount of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression. And what's tough is that we're especially seeing that with children, just a huge amount of mental-health issues, because they are struggling to make sense of any of this. They've been travelling for months and all they know is fear. From the bombings to life on the road, it's just fear and worry all the way."

Most, if not all, of those in Idomeni have risked not just their own lives and limbs to get here but those of loved ones, too. More than 30pc of those scattered amid this claggy chaos are children. Families huddle under tarpaulin.

Stuck in limbo: Some of the tented homes at Idomeni.
Stuck in limbo: Some of the tented homes at Idomeni.

Yet the distance they have put between themselves and the slaughter that forced them from their homes in the first place offers little peace. As bombs rain down and ravage what little is left of Aleppo, Conor has seen the aftershocks shudder up through the soil in northern Greece.

"Last weekend, Hamda, a 22-year-old Syrian, was carried into the clinic in a standard-issue dark thermal blanket by four young men. He was in tears and in a very agitated state. We placed him immediately on our assessment bench. During the episode, he made several attempts to self-harm using his clothing or instruments in the clinic.

"My initial thoughts were that it was a surgical problem like a kidney stone or perforation somewhere in the gut due to his extreme distress. But we soon discovered that this wasn't medical but an expression of extreme psychological trauma. On examining his airway, it seemed he was making a concerted effort to swallow his own tongue. It was impossible to calm him down, but eventually we managed to, even having to administer relaxants. With the help of a translator, it transpired that he had just received news that his sister had been killed in an airstrike on Aleppo. The survivor's guilt of not having been there for his sister, and the stress of being stuck in this camp so far from home, was clearly too much for him to handle."

The teen was far from alone. Conor also recounts the case of a 74-year-old woman suffering from repeated fainting episodes after losing a loved one in the bombings, and a boy of seven who remains incontinent four months after watching his father killed by a sniper.

Two women walking through the camp at Idomeni.
Two women walking through the camp at Idomeni.

Lasting trauma emanates not only from above but below, too. If the air bombardments continue to leave a mark, so too does the crossing of deep seas. A full eight months after political leaders insisted the body of toddler Aylan Kurdi washing up on a Turkish beach represented a line in the sand, still Europe dailies as children drown.

Conor attended to one young mother of three who paid smugglers €1,500 for passage from Turkey to Greece. According to this woman, the Turkish coastguard caught up with their makeshift vessel and pierced the inflatable. Her three children were thrown into the black-blue of the Aegean Sea, before they were all taken on board a rescue vessel.

"How challenging can one journey be? I mean, she thought all of her kids - three-year-old twin daughters and a 16-month-old - had died, had drowned right in front of her," he says.

"For her, it wasn't the bombing in Syria, she had - as crazy as it sounds - got used to the daily bombings. For her it was the utter uncertainty that she faces. Crossing the water, seeing her children face down in the sea.

"The frustration in the camp is that people just don't know when things are going to get better, when their lives are going to be even a tiny bit 'normal' again. It's just that feeling of powerlessness, the not knowing."

The young mother in question is 25. After treating her, did Conor think back to what he was doing when at that age?

"To make those parallels really just brings it smashing home," he says.

"These are normal people. When we look at these people through [a screen] it's understandable that we're quite detached and think that we are very different from them. But when you see them and you meet them and you speak with them, you realise that they are the most normal people in the world. They are you, they are me.

"They are proud people so a hell of a lot of them are just embarrassed and ashamed to be in this situation. Let's say we are in Sligo and we are forced into a similar position, forced out of our city and country and you find yourself in, say, Scotland or wherever, living in tents and camps. All of a sudden, you have no control over food, over anything anymore.

"You're living with thousands of other people on the side of a railway track and you've come in to me in a medical clinic some morning with scabies. Imagine that. Imagine yourself even getting scabies, knowing how loaded a term that is. With lice and all this other stuff, that feeling of shame is so debilitating.

"Also, for any child to grow up in this environment - they're living on an international train line, sleeping in a tent that's maybe made for temporary leisure camping, their toys are fuse boxes and parts of Diesel engines, Coke bottles and whatever else."

And yet Conor has found light. In the laughter of some of the children he treats, in the cups of tea constantly served up to him by people who have all but nothing, in a shared smile and a marvelling wonder with an 83-year-old woman, crippled with arthritis, who had somehow - she couldn't herself quite explain how - made it this far. "For me, it's a privilege to be on a tiny part of this journey with them," Conor, who is seven weeks into a four-month mission with MSF, says.

"For them, it's a once-in-a-generation event. As Irish people, we have so much to be thankful for, for other countries that have helped in times of need. Personally, I feel a certain responsibility as an Irishman, as well as a doctor, to help these people.

"The difference I am ultimately going to make here in the grand scheme of things is pretty insignificant. What I'm doing here alone isn't going to transform a crisis. But along with the much-needed medical care that MSF provides here, it's also the small things that I can do that may help - a smile, an ear to listen, being with these people along this journey."

Some mornings, if there is a quiet lull during the overnight shift at the clinic, he quite literally finds the light.

"During the day, the camp is a hive, there's a constant buzz," says Conor. "You contrast that with how the place looks and feels in the very early morning when there's hardly a sound, almost like this collective snore. Being able to walk around and just soak that in is incredible, especially as the day is beginning to break. It really is a beautiful area. The sun rising up is almost like giving the camp a kiss of life. It's like an injection of energy into the place.

"It's so true what they say, the darkest moment is before the dawn. It is very, very cold and black before that sun rises over those hills. It's Baltic. But suddenly this burst of light comes over a hill and it's warmer.

"I hope whatever journey these people are on that this is their darkest moment and they can eventually see the dawn... that their next generation gets to live in that light."

To donate, please see: www.msf.ie/donate. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is a medical humanitarian organisation that provides emergency aid and quality medical care to people caught up in war, disasters and epidemics. MSF is responding to the refugee crisis with search and rescue operations at sea and by providing medical and psycho-social care to people on the move

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