The first camps…
On Tuesday, around midnight, I landed safely in Greece. It was a pretty uneventful trip. I was then driven to thessaloniki by the Greek taxi driver equivalent of Jenson Button. I was dropped off at a small hotel that can, most politely be described as basic, but less diplomatically as a pit. Breakfast consists of lukewarm coffee and sweaty processed cheese…… Yummsers!
Wednesday saw the arrival of the other volunteers and now, we are four dental professionals from the uk. Two nurses, Mel and Lucy, both in their early twenties from Manchester and Richard, our implantologist from Cheshire. The team is joined by Hassan, the translator and ground team leader and Marcos, the all round handy man, who completes the support team. Every evening around 9pm we receive a text advising us of where we need to be the next day. Our first message directs us to Elpida, about thirty minutes drive from the hotel.
Elpida is a large warehouse type building that has been modified into a institutional type block. It’s home to around 100 refugees. The people have tried to make it more welcoming by painting one outside wall with murals and graffiti but it still makes quite a depressing sight. We’re greeted by a French aid worker and she shows us up to the third floor where we can set up our clinic. I was expecting much more hustle and bustle but the corridors are pretty deserted. It’s Ramadan and we learn the most of the adults are still sleeping. As a result the clinic is pretty quiet. We see a few patients and grumble a little bit about the heat. The patients we do tend to see are children. In fact, it’s very depressing to see very young children wandering the empty corridors cuddling soft toys. We spend some time trying to get smiles and waves as they pass. More demoralising, is watching the same children, post treatment, with sweets and lollipops permanently in mouths. They already have raging decay but I sugar is a very cheap source of calories. By about 3 the trickle of patients has dried up and we have to pack up the surgeries and lug them back to the van.
The early finish does, however, free the team to see a little bit of Greece and so we drive to Halkidiki to the beach and watch the sunset before driving back to be ready for Diavata camp in the morning.
Diavata, is one of the main camps in northern Greece. At its busiest it held about 2000 refugees, now it holds about 750. In the past, it has seen its troubles with some rioting and violence but now is home to mainly families and is considered a very safe camp. It’s so different from Elpida. The size and facilities are more in keeping with what I expected. It has a medical and dental clinic, school, various UN and EU humanitarian support buildings and workers…. Shower blocks and kids play area. The tents that were apparently there through the winter have recently been removed and replaced with small prefabs. Life must be incredibly difficult. A mind numbing existence with little or nothing to do. Constantly waiting for news and hoping that you will be transported to one of the camps near Athens and one step closer to a new life in your asylum country. It’s unlikely that these people will ever be able to return to Syria.
The dental clinic is a two chair room housed in a large metal cargo container. It’s 35 degrees outside ….. Inside the surgery it must be at least 45! The small air on unit is broken and pushes the hot air round. The patients begin to arrive straight away and soon there is a small queue forming. There is a mix of Syrians and Kurds. We carry out whatever treatment is required and this ranges from extractions to fillings and first stage root canals. Everyone is always amazingly grateful and appreciative that we are trying to help and also working in the oven like environs of the cargo container!
Tomorrow, we are working the the Norwegian refugee centre and it should be the busiest dentistry day yet. We have been told that they have a bus load of patients already and so we have an earlier start and probably a much later finish……