-read beyond the headlines or provide any “clicks” to articles that expound on the incident
-learn the name(s) of the attacker or attackers
-devote attention to any manifesto or statement from the attackers or groups affiliated
-watch any video of the incident capturing the moments before, during or after it occurred
-regard an entire people group as a threat
And I CHOOSE to:
-live and wander freely in this world, with my wits, but without fear
-show my children the stirring beauty of this planet and the glorious tapestry of people upon it
-respect the statistics showing that death by terrorism is less likely than drowning in a bathtub
-celebrate what is beautiful and criticize what is ugly about any religion, including my own
-recognize that every breath I’m given is just that, a gift
Being a Christian refugee in this part of the world is a dangerous affair.
Unlike in America, where counting oneself a Christian is increasingly perceived as a designation that affords privilege, sometimes to an unfair degree (I have my doubts on that one), there is no question that the opposite is true in much of the Middle East.
It is easy to see that militant Islamists are actively focused on the eradication of Christianity in at least “Muslim” lands, if not the whole world. This is true to some degree in the refugee camps as well.
Even still, many of the refugees we worked with this week are either committed Christians, or are actively exploring the faith.
The stories of how these people came to their decisions for Christianity vary widely, but most are eye-opening. Few in the Middle East can come to Christ as easily and risk-free as nearly every American can if they wish. Apostasy from Islam is often regarded as an offense punishable by death.
One man I saw this week was openly wearing a prominent silver and gold cross around his neck. I didn’t notice it at first, but as I was listening to his heart with my stethoscope the bright golden object swinging in front of me was suddenly hard to miss.
Realizing I wasn’t in America, where crosses are so ubiquitous they’ve become a little trite to me, I exclaimed, “You’re wearing a cross!”
“Yes,” he nodded.
I pondered the implications of wearing that specific symbol in the Islamic world. A cross is better described as cross-hairs for a man like him. Yet he wore the symbol proudly, unapologetically. Should our roles be reversed, would I have the same courage?
“You are a Christian then.” I said, continuing in my new role of Dr. Redundant.
“Yes.” He nodded again, smiling.
Through my translator, I learned that a few months ago in Iran he was awoken in the night by the figure of a man calling him to follow Christ. He said he was convinced that the man speaking to him was Jesus, the Son of God. He knew almost nothing of the Christian faith, as he was raised a Muslim.
Still, upon waking the next day, my patient committed himself for following Christ. He felt he had to do this. It was an inner compulsion; he had been called to a new faith, a new life, no matter the cost to him.
But it was indeed a ‘costly’ decision. Read anything about the Islamic regime of Iran (I recommend the the wonderful autobiography Persepolisas a cursory intro if interested), and you will know that the government of Iran is itself a religious organization. Along with typical functions of any secular government, like providing running water, working roads, electricity and health care (which in many instances, the Iranian government does quite well), it also enforces a highly conservative interpretation of Shia Islam.
How do they enforce such a thing, you ask? How do you get a nation of 77.5 million people to follow extremely strict religious rules? How can you enforce an entire nation to put every woman in robes and headcoverings, to allow no music, no dancing and to enforce frequent observance of Islamic practices like 5x daily prayer?
With “religious police” of course!
As a kid from the suburbs of America, following a Christian faith I was always free to reject, it took some reading and imagination for me to even comprehend such a notion.
It was only in 1979 that the Iranian Revolution took place. Prior to that, Iran probably looked much more like America than it does today. But in ’78-’79, things changed dramatically, as that was the year of the Iranian Revolution. It was then that the Pahlavi dynasty, led by Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by the Islamic Republic.
The Republic was initially a political movement, comprised of a collection of leftist thinkers, activist students and numerous Islamic movements. It was led by a powerful Islamic leader named Ruhollah Khomeini, a scholar, author, politician and political revolutionary.
After the Shah was forced from power, to the surprise of nobody, Khomeini was designated as the Supreme Leader of Iran. However, TO the surprise of many, Khomeini was given final authority on both political and religious matters.
The irony of this transformation is hard to miss. Criticism of the Shah centered around how difficult it was for the commoner to be heard. The Shah’s rulership was a dynastic monarchy, with power passing from father to child generation after generation. This meant that nobody could rise from, say, a community organizer and member of a minority comprising 13% of a nation’s population, like Barack Obama, to the highest position of power in the land (Huzzah! Huzzah! Democracy!).
Yet the solution to this problem that emerged in Iran was the Islamic Republic, which consolidated both political and religious power in one man. The power of the rulers of Iran was, effectively, broadened as a result of the revolution. The “little people” never got their say. And, I suspect, many of those who supported the Revolution experienced colossal disappointment. Power just went from one ruling class to another. To this day, a Khomeini rules Iran.
Some version of the above rushed through my mind as I stared at the cross hanging from my patient’s neck. An Iranian, 4 months in Greece, wearing a bright silver and gold cross. Wow.
As it turns out, the father of this man was a member of this religious police force. This patient had chosen to convert from Islam to Christianity as the son of a man who is tasked with enforcing and promulgating Islam in the country. More irony.
Imagine the shame on their family for such an act! Aside from endangering himself, my patient was possibly even endangering his own father (and mother).
Many immigrants come to Europe because they think it is rich, with jobs and money flowing like wine at a wedding party. Increasingly, they are finding that Europe is no utopia. Millions are unemployed. Millions are poor. Upward mobility is rare.
But one reality of Europe is that it does remain a place where you can follow a religion in nearly any any way you choose, to include no religion at all. Say what you will about the EU, but it remains a place of tremendous religious freedom, rivaled perhaps by only the U.S.
So it is understandable that this man left Iran. But it is still amazing that he was willing to do it. He left with nothing. No family, no friends. He slunk away in the night, alone. As the son of an important man, his life had no doubt been comfortable and safe. He upended all of that.
My patient arrived at the Pireaus Port of Athens after crossing the Agean Sea from Turkey. He arrived nearly destitute, having given most of his money to a trafficker to get him to Greece. I think he slept on the concrete sidewalk the first night.
The next morning, he says he prayed that the God of his new faith would spare him, and shortly thereafter was approached by members of a Christian church in Athens who offered him a bottle of water. It was through this church that I met him.
Greek authorities soon placed this man in the Elliniko refugee camp, where he made no secret of his faith, sharing it with any around him who would listen. Not long after his arrival, a riot broke out in the camp with Muslims targeting Christians.
The violence carried on for quite some time, as Greek police made no move to stop it, one even pointing out that if some of the refugees died, “there will be fewer of them for us to deal with.” My patient was beaten severely in the melee.
It is inhumane, of course, for anyone to think as these police did. But their attitude is understandable nonetheless. Would you wade into the middle of that mess?
Somewhere in this story, my patient picked up his cross. I don’t know if it was in Iran or somewhere in Athens. But he wears it daily. It is not merely jewelry to him, given at some Christmas party. It wasn’t bought from one of the ubiquitous Christian Book Stores in America, with every possible permutation of “cross trinkets” available for sale. It was bought for a price; worn for a higher one.
This isn’t necessarily a Christian story, although as a Christian I find it inspiring. But from this anyone can recognize the deep human desire to worship in freedom. This man’s life story is a reminder that people are willing to die for the right to think and act honestly in relation to their understanding of the divine.
The cross symbolizes the reality of this man’s beliefs, even if that symbol marks him for suffering or even death. Would that all Christendom be so committed. Would that all who cherish freedom be so as well.
For the second time in less than a year, I’m on my way back to Athens. This will be a short trip with virtually no team. My colleague organizing things in Athens has stated that she “feels sorry” for me, as the number of people signed up for the clinic appears to be quite large.
From what I can tell, the situation in Greece has only gotten worse since I was last there. Many borders and routes into Europe have closed, and migrants are being turned away at far greater numbers than they were last year. But by “turned away,” I’m not describing from Greece itself. Nope. Thousands continue to arrive on the shores of Greece every day. I’m talking about further into Europe. So, the migrant population continues to swell in Greece, especially Athens. Although authorities have begun shipping back some migrants (numbering in the hundreds) in the past few days, this is a small small number.
I say I’m bringing ‘no team’ this time, but in reality this isn’t accurate. Aside from what sounds like a great number of willing helpers in Athens, I also will bring my 14 and 16 year old daughters with me this time. I don’t know what sort of role they will be able to play in the work we do this time. It could be simply watching the children of the patients while they’re waiting the doc.
Hopefully, they can learn a bit about medical care in a refugee and/or underserved situation. As their lives are largely consumed with cheerleading, skinny jeans, teen-lit, French horn, Cello, soccer and boyfriends (ex…EX boyfriends), this might be quite an eye-opening experience for them. I hope so.
My biggest concern is that we will successfully collect accurate data on the patients we see. Last time we did a fair job, under the circumstances, but in my spare time I’m STILL working through the XL spreadsheet and trying to come up with data summaries that will be of some use to the wider medical world.
This time, I hope to have time to ask better questions, and to formalize how we input the data. It is well known among those who do medical research that 80% of the study is done before the study begins. Developing a means to collect data, to college USEFUL data, and to do it in a way that is searchable and accessible at a later date is difficult. It is especially difficult when at that later date, you are dealing with hundreds, maybe thousands of data points.
I’ve had enough training in this element of the medical world to feel a gnawing sense of anxiety as I approach the issue. My medical school heavily emphasizes epidemiology and biostatistics, and I was part-way through an Master’s in Public Health degree until I ran out of money. So I have a sense for how easy it is to do this stuff badly. But I wish I had a collaborator or better skills to know I could do it well.
Still, I’ve had some help from a colleague at work who maintains a quizzical affection for XL (I can’t judge, I was once in a steady relationship with Photoshop), and he has helped me clean up our data from October. And I have a much better sense for what I need to do this time around.
It should be mentioned that most relief agencies don’t actually do any of this, even the good agencies who actually help people (lots of them are there for the photo-op and little else, it seems). I received some generous help from a professor at the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine prior to my last trip, and he noted only a small number of agencies who provide care AND do good, statistical research on the populations they serve.
So, it makes sense that I’m somewhat on my own here. It’s not easy to focus on research and practical care at the same time, as one is more empathy-driven, the other much more analytical and “cold.”
Example: if someone comes in coughing up blood, you can either turn and enter “hemoptysis” into your spreadsheet (and then get the heck out of there because…ew), or you can throw on some gloves, hopefully a mask, get them on a bed and start working them up for any of the many many possible reasons for that symptom (most of those reasons being prit-TEE bad).
So, we will see how this goes. We leave tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 44 year old man came to our clinic today with a description of chest pain, mostly on the left side. He says it’s been ongoing for about 4 months.
He arrived in Athens about two weeks ago, with plans to head to Germany in another week. He was seen last week at a Doctors of the World clinic in town for the same problem.
He says they gave him the above EKG, told him he was having a heart attack, and sent him out the door with 10 pills of Prilosec and instructions to go to “the hospital.”
Due to money restrictions, lack of transportation, minimal confidence in, and maximal confusion from, his interaction with his Greek-speaking doctor, he did not go to the hospital. He instead came to our clinic 4 days later, worried he was dying from a heart attack.
There certainly isn’t universal agreement on the refugee crisis. In fact to some, the term “crisis” is itself questionable. Many have described this as an outright “Muslim Invasion” of Europe.
As I attend a Calvary Chapel, where simplicity of thought reigns supreme, here is my super-simple take on the political side of this, using a bit of alphabet soup.
I recognize points in the following argument that lack nuance; I do not purport to know answers to this crisis. I can only say that the below line of thinking is viable enough to justify, to myself, the work we are doing here:
Say you come across a guy who has been walking, hiking, crawling from point A for the past year. He has lost half of his family and most of his money on the journey.
His intention is to reach point Z. But you meet him at point T. He is cold, wet, hungry, possibly sick and terrified especially of what awaits him should he return to points A-P(ish).
Given his determination to reach point Z, do you REALLY think ignoring him at point T will discourage him from reaching his goal? Furthermore, those of us comfortably sitting at point Z, do we want to receive multitudes of people who were ignored, possibly abused, at all points along the way?
Most of our larger endeavors in life are gambles. There is no way to know the outcome of our actions until we look back later and see how things turned out. We can’t know how the Western world will change as a result of these things happening today.
And so in this, one the greatest crises ever seen by the combined Western and Eastern worlds, bets need to be made.
As such I bet on love and kindness. Rarely, if ever, do these things result in loss.