In my past blog posts, I have predominantly centered the discussion on my involvement in the Medical and Legal Empowerment Brigades in Athens. Today, I intend to shed light on the primary beneficiaries of Global Brigades's efforts in Greece—vulnerable communities, particularly refugees and asylum seekers. Many of these individuals carry with them stories of extraordinary strength, and courage, alongside profound tragedy and trauma, experiences that are often beyond comprehension for most of us. They serve as a source of inspiration and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Additionally, they starkly remind us of the systemic inequalities that persist in our world, urging us to reflect on our roles and to critically assess the systematic injustices of the past and present that disproportionately affect the already marginalized.
I will briefly recount the experiences of three courageous individuals I've had the privilege of meeting over the past year. I am sharing their stories with their full consent and approval. However, it's important to note that I can never truly capture the authenticity and depth of emotion with which they conveyed their journeys. Out of utmost respect for their privacy, I will refrain from disclosing their names or sharing images of their faces. Instead I want to feature paintings created by one of Global Brigades Greece’s first patients, whose husband, at one point, served as a Farsi translato. It's crucial to recognize that although certain parallels may exist in the journeys of countless migrants, the lived experience of each migrant is profoundly distinctive and personal. The sole purpose of sharing the stories of these three individuals is to provide prospective brigadiers with a glimpse into the lives of those receiving assistance from Global Brigades.
A Journey of a Thousand Miles
Four years ago, F, along with her family—her husband and two sons—made the difficult decision to flee Iran. They made the deliberate choice to leave their eldest daughter with her grandparents because she was in the process of pursuing her engineering degree at university. Their journey was arduous, with the family travelling on foot, and camping in Turkey's forests and parks for nearly 50 days, with very few resources to sustain them.
In an effort to keep their spirits up and evade authorities, the family turned their evasion efforts into a kind of 'game,' especially for the children, attempting to infuse what was a dire situation with a more 'playful' perspective. They considered themselves 'winners' after successfully eluding capture on six occasions. Eventually, their journey led them onto an overcrowded shipping vessel with 52 other passengers, an experience F described as a nightmarish ordeal.
Upon reaching a Greek Island, they found themselves in a camp that has since gained notoriety for its appalling conditions and severe overcrowding. F recounted how there were no tents available, and they were provided only with tarps for shelter. A single blanket marked their allotted 'space.' Diseases proliferated in the camp due to the unsanitary conditions. Days began as early as 4 a.m. as they queued for meager rations of bread to sustain their family. Fortuitously, one day, while standing in line, one of the distributors recognized that F could speak English and asked for her assistance as a translator. This occasionally resulted in her receiving an extra tomato or cucumber to share with her family.
Eventually, F and her family were relocated to another camp, offering improved conditions. She secured a job with an organization that provided access to warm showers, a luxury that moved her deeply, particularly for her children. In this camp, they also had access to psychiatric support, and her children were able to attend school. Some teachers recognized the intelligence of her sons, and one teacher, in particular, advocated for her son to study at the University of Athens by sending letters to the Ministry. As a result, F and her family relocated to Athens, where her son now attends University, and F herself works as a Medical Coordinator and Farsi Translator at Global Brigades. When asked if she would ever return to her home country if things improved, there was no hesitation in her reply - “Yes. It is the place where I grew up. For my children, they have nothing to go back to but for me, all my memories were lived in Iran.”
F is beloved by both the patients and the in-country team. Her presence infuses the clinic with a feeling of security and comfort. It's challenging to articulate, but her demeanor can be succinctly described in one word: Motherly.
"They walked in the night to find a light. There are a lot of people who walk at night to find a better country, a safe country for their children. I just painted one perspective." Zeinab Nourzehi (A GMB patient)
A Mother’s Will
February 24th, 2022, is a date forever etched in Ira's memory. While rumors of an impending invasion had been circulating, the reality of the siren wailing and explosions was something no one could adequately prepare for, as Ira recounted. She vividly recalls the sight of projectiles and fighter jets soaring over Kyiv, unsure whether she, her mother, or their 5-year-old son would be in the line of fire. At the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, her spouse was employed in Greece and residing in Athens.
Seeking refuge in an underground shelter for a grueling two weeks, they endured freezing temperatures plummeting to -15 to -17 degrees Celsius. Their clothing provided little protection, and Ira described the conditions as "teeth-chattering" and "bone-chilling" in the truest sense. The trauma of bombs detonating around the city continues to haunt her, with even the sound of thunder disrupting her sleep to this day. Now residing miles away from her homeland, in Athens, she remains haunted by those memories.
Ira recounted the tragic loss of many lives as people attempted to leave the city during those two weeks, using various modes of transport. She expressed gratitude that her family did not make such a perilous decision.
During those trying weeks, she could provide her son with only one meal a day, while she and her mother chose to go without eating. Upon reaching Poland, a kind Polish family sheltered them. Irina's profound appreciation for the food they received after enduring over two weeks of starvation was evident, bringing tears to her eyes. This compassionate family cared for them for six days and even arranged for their flight tickets to Greece.
Upon their arrival in Greece, the initial month was marked by overwhelming dread as Ira grappled with the mental trauma she had endured. She shared her anguish, saying, "I was prepared to go back, I was prepared to die, but my son… What has he ever done? I could not bear the thought of my son's life being taken away from him."
In Greece, Ira found employment as a translator for various organizations. It was through this work that she was introduced to F, who brought her to Global Brigades as our Ukrainian Translator. Ira's radiant smile lights up any room she enters. In addition to her work with with us, she also serves as a translator for organizations aiding marginalized women and sex workers who face abuse. Her son is attending school, learning Greek, and excelling in his studies. He also participates in dance classes.
The bond between a mother and her child is the only real and purest bond in the world, the only true love we can find in our lifetime.
No Country for a Young Child
This is the story of a young boy, whom we'll refer to as B, hailing from Sierra Leone. I encountered B for the first time a few months before my involvement with Global Brigades, and his narrative shares similarities with that of many unaccompanied minors who arrive in the EU and Greece. Sierra Leone, like many African countries, has a history of exploitation through harsh colonial rule and subsequent civil wars following its independence. Faced with limited opportunities and witnessing his parents' relentless struggles for a meagre livelihood, B made a life-altering decision at the tender age of 10. He chose to leave his home and embark on a journey toward the European Union (EU) - a place he had heard from acquaintances, that offered abundant job opportunities and the chance to pursue education and earn an income to support his parents.
B's journey spanned four countries: Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Algeria until he eventually arrived in Morocco. This was an arduous and challenging odyssey, involving navigating dense forests, enduring the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert by day, and enduring the extreme cold at night. B travelled on foot or in the back of vehicles, all while attempting to evade authorities or striking pocket-emptying deals with people smugglers along the way.
B shared the harrowing experiences he endured after being apprehended by border authorities. He described being blindfolded, loaded onto trucks, and transported to the heart of the desert, where he and others were left with nothing but their sheer determination to walk back and attempt to cross the border once more.
He also recounted an incident when he and his friends tried to cross the trench that separated two countries. They dug a tunnel and then scaled a fence lined with barbed wire. B used his shirt to shield his hands, minimizing the risk of injury, as they made their way to the other side. Although a considerable number of them were apprehended and forcibly deported, he managed to evade the authorities and successfully crossed.
It is widely acknowledged that the externalization of borders has become increasingly common in recent times. Countries serving as access points to the European Union (EU) from Africa often receive financial incentives from the EU to deter asylum-seeking migrants, effectively sidestepping their international responsibility. Regrettably, the implementation of these measures frequently involves brutal tactics.
Despite the hardships he has faced, B still holds onto the hope of reaching the EU. He aspires to pursue a career in medicine to become a doctor.
Among the numerous murals in Athens, this particular one, open to interpretation, struck me as a portrayal of the inherent innocence and inner beauty found in children. Children are like budding flowers, requiring nurture and care. It is disheartening that so many children are denied this privilege in a world often marked by cruelty.
Global Brigades and Stories in Greece
The three concise stories I've shared here only scratch the surface and cannot fully capture the depth of emotion and the actual experiences lived by these remarkable individuals. The intention is to offer readers a glimpse into the lived realities of the people who seek assistance from organizations like Global Brigades and to underscore the importance of providing them with medical and legal support. It is an opportunity to foster empathy, draw inspiration from their stories, and recognize their need for help.
Departing from one's homeland is a decision fraught with difficulties, affecting the majority, if not all individuals. The motivations for such departures may vary widely, stemming from economic, educational, conflict-related, climatic, cultural, or religious factors. It is crucial to keep in mind that we all share a lineage of migration and, as such, must welcome those arriving in our countries with the same compassion and respect we would hope for if we were in their shoes. Access to healthcare is an essential prerequisite for a life marked by dignity, especially for irregular migrants who embark on hazardous journeys in search of countries they believe provide better opportunities. This access to healthcare forms the core of Global Medical Brigades's mission in Greece.
The impact you make during a brigade leads to sustainable change and community empowerment. Discussing the profound experiences you have on a Medical Brigade is a great way to demonstrate how your volunteer experiences have strengthened your choice to become a doctor.