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.
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:
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
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.
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.