27 Apr 16 28 Nov 16

Greece: Dr Conor Kenny's patients share stories of epic journeys

Dr Conor Kenny from Sligo has been treating patients with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at the border between Greece and Macedonia at the sprawling Idomeni camp.

"I’ve been working with MSF at the Greek-Macedonian border since March. My daily work at this sprawling camp, near the town of Idomeni, brings me into contact with some of the most resilient people I have ever met.

The people here, many families amongst them, are fleeing wars and conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. Most are on long and dangerous journeys from Syria – but many are coming from Iraq and Afghanistan too.

Most of the people I see at the MSF clinic have pre-existing injuries or pathologies from living in a conflict zone. Mental health is a huge issue here, too, largely due to prolonged wars, torture or the journey itself –which often involves traumatic sea crossings.

The terrible living conditions at the camp also contribute to poor health – which means that there’s never a quiet moment for the MSF team here.

Every day, the people I treat tell me their stories. Even after many weeks working here, I’m still astounded to hear what some have been through.

At the MSF clinic I meet Maya, a 25-year-old woman experiencing chest pains. After undertaking an examination and talking about her problems with the help of an MSF psychologist, it becomes clear that her chest pain is not medical, but a manifestation of psychological trauma.

From Aleppo, Syria, Maya survived five years of caring for her three children in a “hotter than hot” war zone. But her severe anxiety is not due to living under relentless bombing – incredibly she describes this as something she acclimatised to – but, instead, the result of a traumatic sea crossing only a few months ago.

Maya had saved just enough money to be able to get her family out of Syria and pay for the short but treacherous boat journey between Turkey and Greece.  

When they reached the harbour at Bodrum, in western Turkey, she saw the flimsy inflatable boat that would take them across. About 1 km out to sea, the boat started to take on water and quickly began to sink, and as they floundered in the waves, she lost hold of her children.

Panicking, she saw her three children face down in the water nearby. Convinced they were dead, she started to scream.

Eventually Maya was pulled out of the water by rescuers and onto another boat. Her kids – all three still alive – were pulled out too. Cold and shivering, she hugged her young family on board the rescue ship.

Haunted by this experience, Maya again clutches her precious children close as she recounts this story.

On a call out to a remote part of the camp, I meet an elderly couple who are both in their eighties. This pair, who should be enjoying the rest of their lives in peace, are instead on an arduous journey that’s far from over yet. They are Yazidi and fled Iraq following an attack by the so-called Islamic State group on their community. Many of their extended family and friends were tortured or killed.

With nothing to live for in Iraq anymore, they are seeking their grandson, who lives in Berlin. The old lady has diabetes and a variety of heart and lung diseases and her legs are giving way from the journey.

We find her a wheelchair and I place an order for her regular medications – which she has gone without for far too long. They are in remarkably good spirits, despite their sense of bewilderment at how they found themselves here on the border – we even share a laugh.

When I return to the MSF house late at night, my patients’ stories run through my mind. The dignity that they show in the face of such adversity drives me forward. Professionally, I want to do everything that I can to help them.

Without your support, my work with these people on the move would not be possible. MSF’s ability to reach people who are on risky journeys fleeing conflict and danger could not be done without your help.

Read more about MSF's work with refugees in Europe