A Month at Moria Refugee Camp
“They put you on a night for your second shift? Bit harsh, but don’t worry: nights are generally quiet. Mostly we sleep unless someone comes knocking”.
Moria Refugee Camp is situated on the Greek island of Lesvos, the closest European island from Turkey. It’s the biggest camp on the island, and an estimated 6000 asylum seekers were awaiting processing during my month there, volunteering as a nurse in the medical clinic.
I had been at Moria for a total of two of the 30 days I had signed myself up for, and had just finished my first shift. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving, and always being known for my dramatic imagination, had visions of patient after patient on the brink of death from famine, disease and the effects of the wars they had fled.
The reality of my first shift was vastly different. Most of the asylum seekers had already been at the camp for a few months, some even a year, and the newly arrived refugees were given any medical care they required before they even reached us. So I spent the majority of my first shift giving out vapour rub and paracetamol for colds and runny noses. After seriously doubting the value of contribution here, I was ready for my second shift: the night shift.
It started out quiet enough, and at midnight, we decided to lay out the beds and try to get some sleep. Just as I was beginning to drift off, I heard a ‘tap-tap-tap’ on the door. I wondered if I had imagined it — it was so soft. A whole minute passed before we heard it again, this time slightly louder and undeniably a knock. Quickly rolling up the beds, I opened the door to a man with his back to me, leaning heavily on the wall.
“Can I help you?”
No reaction or movement.
“Sir, are you okay?”
I walked around to his front, and that’s when I saw the problem. He was obviously very drunk, too drunk to make the effort to fully stand, and bleeding profusely from his left arm from his elbow down to his wrist.
“Fucking hell! Come inside… inside? Okay?”
Although it was obvious his English was nonexistent, he let me lead him inside whilst he dripped blood all over the linoleum floor.
We got to work assessing and cleaning his self-inflicted cuts. The antiseptic was obviously hurting him and he winced. As he did he reached out for my hand, I instinctively reached back and held him. His grip was soft. He reminded me of a child seeking comfort from their mother. I continued reassuring him that he was doing well, hoping he could understand if not my words then my tone of voice.
After cleaning the cuts, we realized one was deep enough to warrant a stitch. However, when the doctor tried to inject the numbing solution, he pulled his arm away.
We tried to placate him, but with the combination of his drunkenness, limited English and no translator, it was useless.
“No more, no more,” he pleaded.
“Please let me just bandage it then,” I said. I tried to work quickly, but quickly was not enough.
“No more!” he had decided.
He managed to stand, although unsteadily, and with the unfixed bandage already becoming undone around his arm, he stumbled out – back into the cold and rain, with his self-inflicted wounds still trickling blood. I wanted to chase after him, do something more for him, but there was nothing that could be done.
So with that, we mopped up the blood, lay out the beds again and lay there, trying to get back to sleep, and when that failed, lay listening to the sounds of the rain on the roof, hoping the man had at least managed to make it back into his tent for the night.
During my 30 days in the camp, I saw many asylum seekers suffering from what they had experienced in their war-torn countries or were currently experiencing whilst awaiting processing in Greece. Anxiety attacks, psychotic episodes and countless cases of self-harm. Moria Refugee Camp offers very limited mental health services, so often there was little help we could provide other than to refer them to the one overworked psychiatrist on the island who was only accepting one new client a week, and hope not to see them the next day.
I learned to develop a thick skin to these episodes I encountered. However, over one year on from my time in Moria Refugee Camp, I often I still think about that first night shift and the way that man reached for my hand, just needing some comfort in a dark, uncertain place.
Cover by Ayhan Mehmet