The area around the tube station in Athens was alive with people. Families were shouting loudly to each other from opposite sides of the streets, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Children were running round in circles, laughing, Mothers were engaged in intense head to head discussions with each other, Fathers were slapping backs and shaking hands. Passing through, I had no reason to believe that this was anything out of the ordinary, until I arrived at The Salvation Army, the place that would be my base for the next two weeks, to be met by my mentor who was equally as excitable. We stood, side by side in Omonia Square watching as huge numbers of people were ushered onto coaches and driven away. What we witnessed that day at the tube station was the culmination of months of suffering, of hope, of disappointment and of hard work, as this group of refugees were being finally being repatriated to Germany. I was fortunate to bear witness to this, as the next two weeks would throw into sharp focus just how unusual this scene had been.
Several strands to our work in Athens emerged over the coming days; firstly, we were to accompany the ‘ sandwich run’ on its thrice-weekly rounds of the city. A group of casual volunteers headed up by the long term volunteer and totally dedicated Artur, would gather to make sandwiches and deliver them to homeless immigrants living in parks, doorways, makeshift shelters. As student nurses, we carried a rucksack of medical supplies and nursed patients on our knees on the pavements and side by side on park benches. Our hearts went out to the tiny young woman, crouched into a ball as if to make herself invisible, who had a three inch knife wound on her face, the consequence of refusing to hand over her last three euros. We dressed her wounds, gave her comfort and returned to monitor her healing on subsequent nights. The young man we met, a refugee from Iran, with persistent migraines, separated from his family and desperate to reconnect with them. Our feet would ache as much as our hearts as we walked the streets for hours each night seeing new and old patients and facing new challenges.
A second strand to our work was the clinics we ran at The Salvation Army. Staffed by a Dr, nurse practitioner, an interpreter and us, refugees of all ages and nationalities would come in with a wide range of issues, from the baby with a rash, to the old man with a prosthetic leg in danger of becoming seriously infected, to the woman with unexplained and severe abdominal pains who the ambulance service refused to take to hospital. The challenge of working in several languages were immense, but not, as we discovered, insurmountable. With interpreters, diagrams and a good measure of determination, we were able to offer help to all of the patients that walked through the clinic doors.
Getting the clinic organised was a legacy we left behind. On arrival there were bags of medications, dressings, and equipment randomly shoved into cupboards with no systems (unsurprising given the footfall compared to the actual volunteer time available). By point at which we left the project, the clinic was organised to ensure that Drs and nurses could maximise their time with patients by efficient location of the equipment and treatments they needed to carry out their role.
Outreach work in squats was another feature of the work that we did. Similar to the clinic work, except that this time we took the clinics to where the patients lived. This drew in a great many who would otherwise have not received medical care at all. We treated burns, and bites, allergies and infections, injuries and long -term conditions. Everywhere we went, people asked for our help and we were able to give it.
I came back from Athens a changed person, changed not only in the sense that I had learned things about myself that I did not know previously, (I am much more confident in trusting my own judgement now for example) but also, I came back knowing that humanitarian aid was going to be a part of my life in one way or another. Whether I actually make a career out of it or if I volunteer in my spare time, I will continue to offer support to those in need. More importantly, than my own development, I was able to use two weeks of my time to improve the quality of lives of people under the most severe forms of stress, and in the most desperate of circumstances.
Since returning to England, I have maintained links with Athens, and have been able to continue to support some of the people that we met there, I am grateful to the Eleanor Peel Trust for making this opportunity possible for me. One day I hope to return to Omonia Square and the scenes of happiness that I witnessed on my first day in the city.