”They are strong for surviving”

Photo: Ines Marco

According to the Aegean Boat Report a total number of 3 323 refugees have arrived at Greek islands this year (status: January and February) and they currently accommodate a total of 16 212 refugees. Even though the refugee crisis shifted out of media’s main focus, it is still a pressing issue. Daily, new refugees arrive in Europe and they need to be taken care of, accommodated, and offered health care. This couldn’t be handled without numerous volunteers and professionals working for NGOs and charity organisations.

Text: Vitus Besel

One of those volunteers is Maria Fix. The 28-year-old nurse is originally from Germany, where she has worked as a regular and operating nurse in Cologne. Since she was a teenager she has directed her life towards the goal of working in an aid organization, which is why she also wanted to obtain medical education and leadership trainings. Finally, in 2018, she got to know Medical Volunteers International through a friend, who worked for the organisation. She applied and was accepted, and worked her first for two weeks in Lesbos in July 2018.

After returning back to Germany, Maria quit her job, terminated the rental agreement of her apartment, and went back to Greece. Since then she has worked at a small clinic located inside the One Happy Family community center, which offers a variety of different opportunities for refugees, ranging from sports to a women’s center. The community center actively tries to integrate refugees as personnel, such as security personnel, cooks, coordinators, and so on. I got a chance to interview her while she was on an advanced training in tropical medicine in Hamburg.

Photo provided by Maria Fix
Maria at her work with refugees.
Photo provided by Maria Fix

You work as a nurse providing medical care to refugees. What does your day look like?

Since the beginning of December I am not only a nurse, but also act as the coordinator of our project. Our day starts in Mytilene, where we are housed, and around 9:30 we pack all the volunteers into a car and drive to the clinic and keep it open from 10:00 to 17:00 o’clock. It is actually not inside of the refugee camp but a 45 min walk for the refugees from the camp.

As a nurse I mainly deal with small issues such as colds, coughs, and first examinations, and pass more complicated cases to the doctor. Additionally, I get to deal with psychological cases, when it is more about talking to the patients, telling them what is happening, and trying to give them some feeling of strength and security. Living in a camp like Moria is very depressing, and the feeling of despair and an unknown future takes its toll, especially if you have lived through a lot of shit in your past as it is the case for refugees.

Furthermore, as coordinator I am not only in the clinic, I am also in volunteer contact, thus, I have to organise new volunteers and I have to coordinate with other organisations. Therefore there are days I spend entirely in front of the computer.

Aren’t there psychologists for the refugees to talk to? How does it feel to listen to their stories?

There are psychologists from the Doctors Without Borders, however, we only transfer urgent cases to them. As long as the refugee does not immediately plan to commit suicide, they stay with us.

I have been told many horrible stories. Some refugees want to tell what has happened to them and these are stories, which make you want to close your ears. However, I do not close mine, because I can’t just leave them alone with all that. You never really toughen up against these stories, but what helps me is that improvement becomes apparent very fast. If I can give the refugees some feeling of security, and can convince them that they are strong for surviving what they have been through, and that they are not crazy because it’s natural to show symptoms of trauma… Being rewarded with gratitude or a smile for giving them some time and attention is what makes it worth listening to these stories.

Regarding the despair, what do the refugees expect when they come here? And how do they come here in the first place?

First of all, refugees flee their countries, because of the terrible things happening there. They make their way from e.g. Afghanistan through Iraq to Turkey, where they enter a boat and arrive in Lesbos after four hours in the sea, and after a journey that can take up to a year. Some are relieved and can’t believe they finally made it to Europe. They expect to continue their journey soon and go wherever they planned to go. However, the situation here is very bad. Some refugees have been here for two years already and are still waiting for asylum. Last summer Moria was coined the worst refugee camp in the world by Doctors Without Borders. It has been built for 3 500 people, but we had 10 000 refugees, with one toilet for 70 persons and one shower for 80 persons. This is, together with only scattered provision of electricity and a shortage of blankets, the reason why infections occur frequently. All these things add up to creating a mentally straining environment for everybody.

Photo provided by Maria Fix
Photo: Ines Marco

What is the best way for anyone far away from Lesbos to support your project and clinic?

We welcome any kind of donations. We receive monetary donations directly, and they can be earmarked as well. Material donations are good as well, medicine, shoes, clothes. There are organisations taking care of logistics, sometimes it just needs some googling to find them. Eventually, we can use any kind of media attention for our cause and, additionally, we are always looking for volunteers with all kinds of skills. Those do not have to be necessarily medical. Everybody is welcome as a volunteer and I think it is a great opportunity for students to get involved.

At the point of finishing this article another 330 refugees have arrived in Lesbos since the beginning of March. On 10th of March a headless body washed ashore at the South coast. It is believed to belong to a 9-year-old refugee child. A tragedy, yet, eventually it will be just another number in some statistic, if there is no change at all in the ways the refugee crisis is handled and perceived. Fortunately, numerous volunteers, such as Maria Fix, are active in bringing some humanity to the crisis with a determination and courage, which hopefully keeps inspiring more people to act.


The clinic of the medical volunteers.
Photo provided by Maria Fix

The interview was conducted on the 29th of January 2019 by Vitus Besel for Kimppu.

More information about Medical Volunteers International: http://www.medical-volunteers.org

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