Dentist returns to help refugees

Refugee tents at Petra camp at the foot of Mount Olympus

Rye News readers may remember that I wrote a piece in August about my trip to Northern Greece to offer emergency dental treatment in some of the refugee camps that have been established in the area. I returned on October 28 and this time Diana, my wife, came along too  because it was decided that an extra pair of hands would be useful, which proved to be the case.

Tents inside the warehouse at Diveni refugee camp
Tents inside the warehouse at Diveni refugee camp

I had the chance to visit more camps as well as return to the original ones.  This time I went under the auspices of HPF (Health Point Foundation) which organises and coordinates the dental provision in the camps. It’s a small organisation and as a result can be more nimble and quicker to respond to need than some larger groups. I had the chance to see what progress had been made since the summer.

The surgery  at Diavata camp had been transformed, it is still in a shipping container but this time a customised one and inside there is a surgery with two dental chairs. It was such a luxury to be working there when compared to how it had been only a few months before.  A generous Bulgarian man had donated this surgery and if an x-ray machine could be obtained it would be possible to do a full range of treatments.

Ph: Josephine Merrill
Kyriacos and Diana inside the tent at Softex refugee camp

There are 25 refugee camps in this area of Greece housing about 60,000 people.  So far 18 of them have had dental visits.  We went to Petra – the first time a dentist had visited.   It’s a 90 minute drive from Thessaloniki to the base of Mount Olympus where the camp is in the grounds and semi derelict buildings of a disused psychiatric hospital.  The setting was beautiful but very cold and the tents cannot be heated.

The camp is for Yazidis, it was interesting to witness how the residents were adapting to their circumstances.  Approaching the camp we spotted people out collecting kindling among the densely wooded surroundings, which was then used for open air cooking and we had the experience of trying delicious freshly made flat bread.   We saw a barber’s shop set up in an open-front rough shelter.  After a delay when we were kept waiting at the entrance  by police and soldiers who seemed dubious about our credentials,  we were shown into a small bare room, where we set up the couch and began to treat patients.  There was a long queue. Some cases were straightforward but in this camp as in all the others I found it very frustrating when the inability to take an x-ray meant that I couldn’t offer advice or treatment as I would have wished.

Diana Hajikakou at the entrance to the shippingcontainer at Diavata refugee camp
Diana Hajikakou at the entrance to the shipping container at Diavata refugee camp

Every camp was different.  One camp (Softex) is in a disused toilet paper factory in an industrial area and is about as grim as it sounds.  The surgery is in a tent, it was cold and windy that day and it was probably the most difficult working conditions we encountered.

At Diveni  the tents occupied by the refugees were pitched in disused warehouse buildings.  We were allocated a small room at the back of a large area used for food distribution.  Our room had a row of windows and it proved impossible to discourage eager young onlookers from coming along to watch the spectacle of dental treatment being performed on their friends and family.

The work was tiring, the days were long, the conditions not easy but the team spirit and atmosphere was wonderful.  We were lucky to be supported by a terrific group of coordinators who did the administrative and organisational work as well as being willing pairs of hands when setting up, clearing away and other necessary jobs had to be done.  They came from Alaska, Brazil, Canada and Saudi Arabia. It was inspiring to witness the energy, good humour and enthusiasm with which the mundane and often trying tasks were performed and again I found myself  humble but glad to have been able to contribute to this worthwhile project.


Photos: Kyriacos Hajikakou


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