Written by Caroline Fakhri, professional interpreter and TWB Community member.
In the refugee camps in Greece, I was interpreting for the people of Afghanistan of whom many were women. As a woman, I could empathize with their difficulties. Most importantly for the women, they felt able to reveal their inner worries without being judged, because I was not from their culture but still understood their language. This was a huge advantage for them to feel they had a safe space to chat and unburden themselves mentally. Interestingly, many of the Afghan men expressed similar sentiments to the women.
“People need to be understood, not just on a word-to-word level but at a deeper level of the culture and customs of where someone is from.”
Caroline Fakhri took this photo of fires in the camps in Larissa, Greece.
The importance of language and communication was expressed to me very clearly by one of the doctors that I was working with at Medicins du Mond –
“As an interpreter you are the most important member of our team. Without interpreters we cannot do our job effectively.”
The photo below shows Caroline Fakhri, on the island of Chios in one of the containers where they saw patients.
“I am a qualified interpreter and English tutor/teacher. I am self-employed and tutor English language and literature to school children up to GCSE level. I also teach EFL to adults and children in schools. I interpret and have worked in the refugee camps in Greece as well as for local authority clients. My mother tongue is English; I speak Farsi fluently, French at intermediate level and I am learning Spanish at the moment.”
A Farsi interpreter in Larissa, Greece
The black smouldering mess was all that remained of half a dozen or so tents that were burning wildly when we arrived at the camp for our afternoon shift. We were there to attend to the aches and pains of the hundreds of refugees housed in these tents just outside the city of Larissa, approximately 350 kilometres north of Athens.
What an opportunity. I had jumped at the chance to use my Farsi language skills on a humanitarian mission during the refugee crisis of 2015/2016. This crisis was brought to the world’s attention when the dead body of the three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy Aylan Kurdi was splashed across the front pages of national and international newspapers, highlighting the cost of this humanitarian crisis, almost on our doorstep.
Large numbers of Syrian and Afghan refugees had left their war-torn countries and got as far as Turkey. In the majority of cases, they had paid a small fortune. Some had sold all their possessions and given their life savings to smugglers to get them from Turkey to the nearest point in Europe. Many arrived on Chios, where I was sent, as well as Lesbos Samos and Kos.
The Greek coastguards were rescuing people as soon as they entered Greek waters in the small dinghies they had been packed into, so full there was standing room only. The smugglers sold them life jackets but they were homemade, sometimes packed with newspaper instead of anything buoyant and invariably made from black material to stop them from being visible at night. The majority of sailings took place under the cover of darkness.
It was just a couple of weeks earlier that I had received a phone call. “Is that Caroline?” a female voice asked, I noted the French accent. “Yes”, I said hesitantly. “Are you ready for your mission? This is Medicins du Monde, Brussels”, the voice continued. We have 14th March for your availability, is that still the case?
Momentarily, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t believe I had been successful in my application to go to Greece to work as an interpreter for the humanitarian organisation Medicins du Monde. “All being well you will leave in a couple of days,” the voice said. We are assembling the rest of the team that you will be working with.”
I put the phone down, jumping up in the air with excitement. In just a couple of days, I would be off to work with people in the now full-to-bursting-point camps on the Greek Island of Chios, as far east in the Mediterranean as you can go before you get to Turkey. I phoned my sister to tell her the news. “You have to go,” she said emphatically.
First stop, Chios
The detention centre up in the hills on Chios Island came into being after the Agreement with Turkey.
I arrived in Chios on the eve of the new EU Turkey agreement. From March 22nd, 2016, any migrants arriving from Turkey would be sent back. All the authorities knew this was an impossible task. There was not enough manpower to process all the new arrivals, spring was coming and with the warmer weather, there would be more and more boats.
After a briefing in Brussels at the Medicins du Monde office and having met my new colleagues, a Belgian nurse, a German doctor and an Arabic interpreter we were on our way. First, we flew to Athens and then by a very small plane, which to me resembled a crop duster, to Chios. Chios is one of the larger Greek islands, sitting just 11 miles from Turkey. It is tantalisingly close for the people who wanted to get to Europe by any means offered.
On arrival at the tiny island airport, we were greeted by the field coordinator Justine and the logistics guy Remy, both of them French. They gave us a warm welcome, asked if we were hungry, whisked us away to the hotel where we would be staying then took us for our evening meal. During the meal, we all had a chance to introduce ourselves and explain our reasons for wanting to come to work in the camps. The overwhelming reason was to help people in dire need.
Whilst having our meal, we became aware of the number of refugees along the harbour front promenade: sitting, chatting and eating on the benches, looking out to sea across to Turkey from whence they had arrived. Many, I was told, were waiting to buy tickets for the large ferry which sat moored, towering over the harbour. The ferry company was waiting for authorization to start selling tickets again. Large numbers wanted to get across to the mainland and continue their journey to destinations such as Germany or the UK. Now the agreement was in place, the Greek authorities wanted the camps empty because from Monday anyone arriving would be deemed an ‘irregular’ migrant, detained, their paperwork processed and returned to Turkey. Well, that was the plan. They wouldn’t go to one of the many temporary camps on Chios; they would go to the detention centre way up in the hills, inland.
Having arrived on Saturday, we were given Sunday off. We spent the day exploring the streets and squares of Chios Town, drinking coffee and getting to know each other in readiness for our first day at the camp on Monday. That Sunday we saw three ferries leaving for the mainland, the majority of people on the ferries were refugees, the people we had come all this way to help.
Little did we realize that tomorrow there would be hardly anyone left in the camps for us to look after. They looked happy, they thought they were on the way to the places they had dreamed about, the places that they had put their lives in danger to reach, but many got stuck in Athens and other places on mainland Greece as the borders all across Europe began to close on them.
With the exodus of so many refugees, we found the camps almost like ghost towns on the Monday morning. We met the team that we were taking over from. After being shown the ropes, there was little to do so we set about writing up guidelines for interpreters. Lunchtime found us sitting in a sunny square ordering Greek delicacies, lapping up the sun and generally thinking we could get used to this life. But of course, we weren’t on holiday.
After this slow start, Thursday saw us up at the detention centre, giving the Greek staff the day off for the Greek National Day, and the following Thursday we were at a camp for minors. A holiday camp which in more usual times would be full of holidaymakers having fun, it now housed a very different clientele The owner had very kindly housed minors, travelling on their own, rather than leaving it sitting empty in the off-peak season. The holiday camp stood on the top of a hill surrounded by pine trees with a breathtaking view over the Mediterranean. We climbed slowly up the steep twisting roads in the medical bus, our mobile clinic allowing us to reach so many more people.
The following Thursday saw us again in the medical bus but right by the beach, attending to the new arrivals who were now considered ‘irregular’ migrants, and were processed accordingly, then taken by bus inland to the detention centre which was now beyond capacity. I saw heartbreaking cases but I also saw what this situation was doing to the islanders, their generosity now stretched as many were still suffering the financial repercussions, left over from the crash of 2008. The now ‘irregular’ migrants were no longer housed in the camps but were left waiting to be processed in a small area where they had landed and this was causing havoc: too many people and too much noise on the locals’ doorsteps, some of whom were fishermen getting up at dawn to get their catch for the day.
With the dwindling number of refugees on Chios, our field co-ordinator made the decision to transfer all of us to a camp on the mainland in Larissa; tickets for the 12 hour sea crossing were purchased and we got ready to leave early on the Saturday morning ferry. Friday afternoon saw a breakout from the detention centre; very disgruntled refugees, now accommodated in the overflowing centre, decided to up and leave and walk some distance down to Chios port where they hoped to get on a ship across to the mainland.
Locals became alarmed at the large numbers of people wandering aimlessly around. There were no ferries and no tickets. We were due to leave in the morning. We spent our last night getting ready to leave early and the following morning after an early breakfast we walked down to the ferry departure point, but there were no ships in sight. All the ferries had been redirected to the other side of the island, we were told, to avoid confrontation with the refugees, so we drove at break-neck speed to the other side of Chios just in time to see our ferry pulling up anchor and winding in ropes ready to leave. We missed it by minutes. Back to Chios town and a rethink and by midday we were on board ready for the long trip to Athens, arriving at nearly midnight. Piraeus Port was busy; there were tents everywhere. It was chaotic. In the chaos, we found a taxi and we were taken to our hotel, home for the next two nights.
Life in Larissa
We left Athens around lunchtime and when we arrived in Larissa it seemed as though summer had arrived with us. We stepped out of the car, stretching our legs in the warm evening air. It had been a long journey with a breakdown on the way. The terraces of the bars and cafes were full despite it being a Monday evening. We booked into our rooms at the lovely family-run hotel, the owner giving us a warm welcome as though we were long-lost relations. It wasn’t long before we too found ourselves out on the terraces enjoying a delicious dinner before deciding it was time for bed, we couldn’t keep up with the locals. I was sharing a room with my Arabic interpreter counterpart Ive. This forced sharing has resulted in a lifelong friendship. “I hope you don’t snore,” I said, “otherwise you will be sleeping out on that balcony.” We had a ringside view from our fourth-floor room. We could almost join in with all the excitement in the square without budging from our balcony, but we were here to work. We needed an early night to be ready for our briefing the following morning. And so began life in Larissa for the next three weeks. We were like a little family, eating, working and sleeping together.
At breakfast the following day we were informed that the Greek army were running the camp and in the morning the Greek Red Cross were on hand to help and that we would start our shifts at 3pm, staying until whenever the army left around 9pm. On Saturdays and Sundays, we worked the whole day and had Wednesday off. Apart from the army, there were no other organisations to help in this camp and as a result from the moment we arrived and set up shop we were inundated with people coming for medical attention. When it was time to leave in the evening, the queue seemed as long as when we had arrived. The doctor really wanted to give every person as much attention as they needed. Everyone had something wrong mentally or physically. We only had one doctor, one nurse, two interpreters and so many hours in a day.
Afternoons went by in a whirl of activity, we tried each day to organise a fair system but it wasn’t an easy task. When we arrived in the afternoons, we were checked in by the army and as soon as the refugees spotted us a queue formed to see us. It was tiring and exhilarating at the same time.
Camping out on the road the first night after leaving the camp. Police escorted vehicles to the camps, helping keep people on the roadside safe.
Then one afternoon without warning the Syrians upped and left. “We have heard the borders are open,” one of them explained. This was not the case. “We are leaving anyway, we are going to go to the nearest border,” and so they left, only to get as far as the main road and that is where they sat for two days trying to get transport. On our Saturday and Sunday shifts, the police escorted us past the camping refugees to the refugee camps; and then just as quickly as they had set up camp they were gone.
Life settled into a slightly different rhythm as only I was required for the most part, for the interpreting: no more Arabic speakers, no breaks while Ive took over, but there was still not enough time to attend to all the people who came to see us. My afternoons were non-stop now. We wondered how far the Syrians had to travel to cross the borders out of Greece that were now closed. It was probably their first time since Eastern Europe had joined the EU.
All the refugees had tragic experiences in one way or another but for the women, it was especially hard. Some of them felt able to confide things in me that they didn’t want anybody else to hear. One woman talked of committing suicide as she was scared her new mother-in-law, travelling with her and her husband, would find out she had been married before. “Nobody must know,” she said to me. “Gossip spreads easily.” She wrote me a letter explaining her life. She was heartbroken when I told her my mission was ending. I also met a former gold medalist, a boxing champion from Afghanistan. We joked with him when we saw his T-shirt, proclaiming he was a champion, “Oh were you in the Olympic Games?” I jokingly asked him. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I won the Gold.” Well, that silenced me. He was a gentleman who often apologised for his fellow countrymen’s behaviour; we waved his apologies away. It’s a difficult situation: an understatement. He showed us long-cut wounds on his head. The Taliban with a sword, he explained, had inflicted them on him. He didn’t explain why.
And then the day of the fateful fire came. And the atmosphere in the camp changed again. Blame was put at the door of the mother cooking food for her children on her camping gas. It was a very windy day. The wind blew the flames and in no time the tents caught light and the fire quickly spread. Thankfully nobody suffered serious burns but the few possessions that they still owned had gone up in smoke.
The mood in the camp changed from day to day. The outbreaks of common diseases, chicken pox, viruses, coughs and colds, and contact skin diseases such as impetigo were difficult to control. There were big tragedies and small tragedies, but the people never gave up hope of something better because hope was all they had left.
Words and photos provided by Caroline Fakhri, TWB Community member.