Notes from a Nurse Volunteering in a Refugee Camp, Part Two

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

As much as I love working in global health, my favorite part of my time volunteering in the refugee camps in Greece was not the healthcare part. I did enjoy working in the clinics immensely, but my favorite part was being able to get to know the people who had made this incredible journey that I truly can’t even imagine having to do myself. I heard so many stories of hardship, struggle, perseverance, sadness and hope. I saw a group of people who were brought together under incredibly difficult circumstances working together and creating a true community.

One of the people I was most blessed to meet during my time in Greece was Zafirah*. Zafirah* is a refugee from Iraq who traveled to Greece with two of her children. She has 12 children in total and spent a lot of time showing me photos of her beautiful children who were now sprinkled throughout Germany, Iraq, and Greece. One of her sons, who is with her in Greece, has severe heart issues and requires a lot of medical care, which adds to her stress daily. She lost her husband during an explosion in Iraq. She has been through an immense amount of pain and challenges in her life. She cried often, as if the tears were right below the surface, ready to emerge at a moment’s notice. In fact, I believe she cried every time we spoke.

She told me a little bit about her experience of traveling from Iraq to Greece. She told me that the rubber dinghy they took from Turkey to Greece was overloaded with people and it started to take on water. They were out in the middle of the sea and she thought they would surely die. In a last ditch effort, she took out her cell phone and used what minimal battery life she had left to call her son who lives in Germany and told him about their dire situation. Her son immediately called the Greek Coast Guard who dispatched a search and rescue boat and found their little dinghy. If that isn’t a miracle, wow, I don’t know what is. That story left me in awe for days. I didn’t get a chance to hear about the rest of the journey, but I hope someday I will.

Zafirah* is one of the most warm, giving people I have ever met. She prepared food and tea and brought it to the clinic several times during the month that I was there. This food comes out of the monthly allotment given to her family by the Greek government. Every time she saw one of the clinic volunteers in the hallway she would invite us in her room for tea and she did not take no for an answer :). “Just a few minutes!” she would say. Once we were inside she would insist we sat down, she would rush us some tea and go to the kitchen to whip up something for us to eat. We would drink the delicious tea, eat, talk, laugh and cry. Needless to say, it was never “just a few minutes.” And that was always ok with us.


*Name changed

Notes from a Nurse Volunteering in a Refugee Camp, Part One

I haven’t talked much about the actual experience of volunteering in refugee camps while we were in Greece. I think it’s partially because the words haven’t fully come yet and partially because it felt like a sacred experience and I’m afraid if I let it out into the world it will somehow leave me. However, I’m starting to realize that it doesn’t disappear if I share it, it just spreads out and the love and inclusion grows.

This is just ONE story. This mother is the definition of strength and perseverance. Her twin sons are living with a genetic condition that took the life of their eldest son at the age of 15. All three of the boys developed the same neurological symptoms at the age of 6, they functioned normally up until that point. This condition has caused them to have frequent seizures, loss of muscle strength and control, they are now non-verbal and are constantly twitching or having muscle spasms.

They also have a son who is 5. Imagine the fear that they live with, not knowing if this son will also develop this same condition which claimed the life of their oldest son and completely morphed the lives of their other two. I simply can’t imagine what they go through daily caring for these boys in a single room in the refugee camp. Let alone what they went through just to get them to safety.

I think about them often and wonder…what would their lives be like in the U.S.? I’m sure that they would have teams of professionals involved in their care, physical therapy, occupational therapy, the best of the best specialists, genetic testing, etc etc.

It does no good to wonder.

Why Global Health?


30,000 children die everyday from preventable illnesses! That is NOT ok! I understand that the healthcare system in the U.S. is not completely up to par, but anyone in the U.S. can walk into an ER and be treated, regardless of wealth or status. This is not the case in the developing world. Many people do not even have access to a health center. Many people carry sick loved ones miles to receive care. Many women deliver babies by themselves and do not know how to handle complications. If we can help even a small percentage of those people, we will have succeeded. We cannot do everything, but everyone can do something!