One emergency too many

‘There’s an old women on the floor of the tent over there and I think she’s dead’, I said, trying to steady my voice and relay my message coherently. ‘Well if she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’ ‘Well,’ I mumbled, ‘I mean I’m not sure if she’s dead or not, she’s either dead or really ill. I’m not a doctor – I don’t know what she is but I think you should come.’ The doctor inhaled slowly, taking in the line of mothers clutching coughing children desperate to get his attention. ‘If you think it’s important, I’ll come.’

It wasn’t the first time I felt I was playing god with precious resources in Idomeni. I’d found myself deciding on the night shift which family got the last tent, and – after days of torrential rain – which man the last pair of shoes. Fewer than 50 doctors served the needs of 14,000 refugees: calling a medic to an emergency meant taking them away from another patient.

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The camp on the Greece-Macedonia border was set up to provide refugees heading north with basic aid: water, jam sandwiches and a communal tent for shelter. Shortly after I arrived they closed the border, yet people kept coming and the camp continued to swell.

‘If she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’

 

 

The old woman had the face of an old master painting – like the wizened figure in Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes but without the compelling expression. Unsure of whether my medical companion was a fan of the arts, I kept this thought to myself, adding only ‘She’s lying on the floor of a crammed tent with kids jumping and shouting around her.’ The doctor took the opportunity to smoke a cigarette and set an unbearably slow pace as we dodged children playing along the only path that wasn’t up to their knees in mud. I resisted the temptation to hurry him on.

His attitude seemed callous at first. I was new to aid work, it was only my second time in a refugee camp. Only later did I learn that you need to take care of yourself first, before you can help others. My medic had been closeted in a small tent for hours treating case after case with limited supplies.

The old woman was sitting upright when we got there. I found myself in the singular position of being slightly embarrassed that she wasn’t dead after all, almost wishing that she might lie down again to justify my urgency. The medic gave me a sideways glance; he didn’t mind, I’d allowed him to snatch 10 minutes of relative peace.

I couldn’t tell you what happened to the woman. Hurrying towards another emergency I didn’t give her a second thought.

A new perspective

Version 2

‘Where are you from?’ I asked Ahmed.
‘I was from Kobani,’ he replied, ‘But it doesn’t exist anymore.’
‘Are you here with anyone?’ I asked.
‘No.’ he replied, staring at me with piercing green eyes. ‘I have no-one.’

Ahmed is a Syrian Kurd in his late twenties. He wore a khaki hat with a pencil wedged under the rim and was unforgiving with the truth. We met in a ramshackle hut as close as he could get to the border of my own country. ‘I will return to Germany in three days’, he said, ‘I won’t risk having my head kicked in just to get to England.’ He held my gaze, challenging me to respond. ‘Instead of starting my life in Germany I’ve wasted five months here in Calais.’

‘I was from Kobani,’ he replied, ‘But it doesn’t exist anymore.’

I’d kept my composure as he told me his town was destroyed, his family killed, his rights violated by French police, his friend attacked by fascists. Yet these wasted five months I could not bear. A tear ran down my face and I was silent. Ahmed’s eyes finally mellowed.

A softly-spoken cotton farmer from Darfur was also at our table. Motez asked for help with his English, and humoured my confused explanations as we mastered the days of the week and months of the year. He smiled when I told him I too grew up on a farm and we compared crops and seasons.

I started to ask Motez about traditional Darfurian dishes when my voice petered out. Had I actually just asked about the local cuisine of a region that has suffered famines across my lifetime? I recalled Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-winning photo ‘The vulture and the little girl’. Motez politely changed the subject, he was curious to know what went on at the warehouse that supplies the camp:

Me: ‘I’ve been making hygiene packs of shampoo, shower gel…’
Motez (smiling): ‘That’s great, but I don’t have a shower.’
Me (undeterred): ‘…toothbrushes, moisturising lotion.’
Motez (indignant): ‘I don’t use lotion!’
Me: ‘Well, maybe you should start?’
Motez laughed.

Numbers and collective nouns – flood, swarm, bunch – tell us what we need to know about refugees. How many there are, where they are going and how we can solve their crisis. And yet here I was, for the first time, sitting in front of two individuals.

Fearful of staying after dark I left Ahmed and Motez to another night in the Jungle. I was grateful to Motez for his gentleness and in awe of Ahmed’s brutal honesty. One hour in the hut was enough to empty my mind of statistics and begin rebuilding a picture through personal stories.

 

– Ahmed is not his real name