“They learn to live with loss, but never give up”

The work of Doctors Without Borders is internationally acknowledged for the remedying impact it brings to hundreds of thousands of people who suffer due to natural disasters or armed conflict. However, the stories behind the organisation’s volunteers have received less attention than they appear to deserve. People who volunteer to join Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) experience untold adventures every time they are called to travel and help the victims of a fate they did not choose for themselves. Two Greek volunteers of MSF agreed to share what they lived during expeditions in Turkey, Palestine, Ethiopia and the Greek islands.

When loss is routine

Vangelis Orfanoudakis is specialised in health crisis management; he found himself in Ethiopia two and a half years a go as a coordinator, where he participated in a programme related to maternal health and the battle against malnutrition.

“We worked at a vestigial medical post. Our expedition team consisted of about 60 persons; we set up a service that allowed women to give birth at hospital and we treated 20 to 30 underfed children, from 2 to 12 years old, every day”, he recites.

The situation in Ethiopia had become so dramatic that several children would not survive. “Unfortunately, the way most people imagine Ethiopia is actually realistic. There are many minors underfed, who lose their lives just because they have no proper food. What is unknown though, is that in some way, such societies have learned to live with human loss, but they still don’t give up. They proudly continue to struggle for survival”.

Vangelis spent six months in Ethiopia and witnessed quite sad instances. Nevertheless, he can recall some pleasant moments too: “The locals were familiar with us and looked forward to us initiating medical examinations for as many as possible. When our expedition was complete, they held a farewell event for me and the whole village gathered to say good-bye. It was very moving”.

Since the beginning of the summer until about November 2015, the MSF volunteer was at the Dodecanese, helping the refugees who came ashore. The drama he saw in Kos, Leros, Kalymnos and other islands he had to visit, took many forms, as the MSF expedition there became witness of 50 to 60 incidents…

“I was there when a crammed dinghy capsized and 35 people got drowned in September. It’s so hard to comfort those who lose their family. There are no words you can say to console mothers who lost all their children. But, know this; for us, even a single life is important to save. Survivors rush to thank us, giving us strength to continue”.

Konstantina Bougonikolou is a mental health specialist. She joined MSF from 2011 to 2013 in Istanbul, providing psychological support to Syrian refugees. “The most intense pictures I can recall from the expedition in Turkey is that several refugees, in order to reach Europe, had to cross the Iranian mountains on foot. As a result, they arrived to us with leg necrosis. We had to cut their nails or feet so that they could survive. How can you tell someone their image and life will be subject to such a change from now on?”, she wonders.

Konstantina explains that it had been quite difficult to help juveniles and teenagers to forget what they had been through and continue seeking a better life. Her expedition consisted of four psychologists and each one of them received 70 to 80 patients monthly.

For the MSF volunteer, things were worse in Palestine, where she stayed for one year as a medical coordinator. “I remember a kid, about 15 years old, wandering very close to the border control points. Some others began throwing stones to soldiers and the latter retaliated with gunshots. The 15 year-old was hit and left invalid. It’s so tragic to see children under house arrest. How can they go to school? How can they be included in society? How is it possible for them to be forbidden from getting outside by their parents themselves, who are forced to become their jailers?”.

Published originally in Greek, The Funnel, 20 Dec 2015

Author: Vasso Asmanidou

Editing, translation: Alex. Moutzouridis

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