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A client in our clinic
“There’s too many unlucky people on Earth but I feel like the worst one,” she said through tears. “I came here for a better life but it’s not happened. I’ve no hope. I just wait to die. Anybody at the age of 38, waiting for death – how can you feel?”
It’s a sad story. I finished medical school in 2004, and I was about to complete my three years of specialist training in oncology when I was arrested by government forces. They took my passport and all my work papers. I spent six months in jail, where I was tortured, both mentally and physically.
I was detained just because I was saving lives. I’d been going into towns that were under government siege to work in hospitals there. We would use secret passages to get into these towns. It was hard for me, as a human being and as a doctor, to know that people were in need and to do nothing. I was doing my duty, which is to save lives. You can’t imagine what we treated – mostly injuries to limbs from shooting. It was war surgery. A big problem was that we didn’t have drugs for people with chronic conditions.
Hospitals have been repeatedly targeted in Syria and many doctors have had to flee the country. So life there is, well, it’s just crisis and injured people. I’ve often said that what’s happening in Syria isn’t a civil war – it’s a war against civilians
Location of Syria.
In Syria, time loses meaning. In one second you could die, but then you might spend one year trapped in a prison. It’s all very confusing.
When I came here to the UK, I spent six months feeling completely isolated. I couldn’t really interact with anybody because of the language barrier. I just knew that I wanted to rebuild my life and have a future again.
I volunteer for many reasons. Firstly, I know that this work makes a difference for many people who need medical care, and helping others is in my nature. Most of our patients are undocumented migrants who need to see a doctor. I always do what I can to help them feel free from mental distress – I tell them that I am here to help, and that I will do whatever I can. I often understand just what they’re going through. I myself know how it feels to wait when you apply for asylum. It’s like a bitter feeling in your mouth all the time.
Photo by Gabriel Peter from Pexels.
When we found Ibtisam in her bedroom in a Bulgarian refugee camp, we rushed her to hospital immediately. She had frostbite and gangrenous spots on her feet. These could have led to amputations if left untreated. She couldn’t explain her problems to the social worker in the camp because of their language barrier.
In order to reach safety in Europe, Ibtisam had walked for several days with a group of strangers over the mountains along Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. It was January and temperatures were regularly below -10 degrees celsius. During the arduous and freezing trek, one woman in the group of refugees died.
On the journey to hospital, Ibtisam was scared about what might happen to her. She hugged herself and said very little. At the hospital, we helped to translate and advocated for her to stay there overnight to get all the help she needed, even though the local doctors were initially reluctant to keep her on.
She stayed in hospital for three days and was treated in time to avoid amputations.
We will stay in close contact with Ibtisam for as long as she needs us. We’ve registered her on our support project for unaccompanied minors, so we can monitor her progress and be on hand if she needs any support. She is one of the few unaccompanied girls in the camp, which makes her even more vulnerable.
Our project for Bulgaria’s unaccompanied refugee children supported over 500 minors in the early part of 2017. Our teams of social workers and translators work in four camps to seek out these minors, give them hygiene kits and winter clothes, assess their health needs, and help them compile the documents they need to join any relatives they have in Europe.
Photo by Fancycrave from Pexels.
It’s already been five years working in Lebanon. I feel I’ve been living in a movie. Every day, I go back home and recall the day’s events, the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, and the pain and joy I shared with my patients. Sometimes, I feel I am out of touch with reality. Some stories are too painful to even look back on. But at the same time, thinking about these people’s resilience keeps me going.
I would like to share Mahmoud story with you. I feel the responsibility of raising his voice after he is gone. Mahmoud, was in his late 50s when he passed away last year from lung cancer. He had to flee Syria with his family, leaving his house and his job behind. As his family was tight-knit, they stood by him, trying to improve his new life. His health started deteriorating when he arrived in Lebanon. Having had to leave Daraa for an unsettled environment took its toll and his mental health affected his psychical wellbeing. He came to the clinic where we work to get medical assistance.
Mahmoud was suffering from a severe depression. He told me that he wanted to talk and needed help, so I listened, deeply touched by his presence. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer one month before he fled. He was heartbroken to be away from his homeland.
Location of Lebanon.
We talked for two hours and he was then able to smile again. By speaking out, he was able to alleviate his pain. We set a date for our next meeting.
It was his son who gave me the sad news, as it seems his father had insisted that he come see me.
Nowadays, I still follow-up with Mahmoud’s family. We talk about mental health in their community. It is their way of keeping Mahmoud’s memory alive...
Kelemua’s case hit the headlines recently. It was another example of how the government’s hostile environment creates a cruel and callous system that inflicts undue pain and misery on the most vulnerable in society.
This may seem like an extreme example, but the Windrush scandal and the cases our volunteer doctors, nurses and caseworkers deal with everyday, show it is far more common than you would ever imagine.
Fortunately, kind doctors and nurses battled the system and fought for Keleuma to receive the treatment she desperately needed.
We believe it is inhumane to treat anyone in this way. We will continue to fight the hostile environment and do all we can to help people access healthcare in the UK. Together we can help create a compassionate society where no-one vulnerable suffers or dies due to lack of care.
In the next few days, we’ll write to you with more stories of how our supporters help our volunteer doctors and workers. Thanks again for caring and sending a message of love and hope this Refugee Week.
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