I have, in common with many, been much moved by the plight of the poor people who end up in refugee camps having been displaced from their homes by conflict. When a request came through from Dentaid I decided to volunteer.
Dentaid is a charity supporting the provision of dental treatment to people in dire need all over the world. So after a considerable delay necessitated by the slow and tortuous process of getting the correct paperwork from the Greek government and local authorities I found myself setting off from Rye at 1.30 a.m. heading for Gatwick and full of trepidation. My destination was Thessaloniki in Northern Greece, I was part of a small team – one other dentist and nurse – being sent out to provide emergency dental treatment at two refugee camps run by the Red Cross.
Having checked into a modest hotel in down town Thessaloniki we made our way to our base camp at Diavata. There under the watchful eye of military police and soldiers we had our induction from the ground co-ordinator. The equipment and materials available were basic, we would only be able to offer the simplest of treatment and we were warned by the American team from whom we were taking over that most of those we’d be meeting would refuse to have extractions, leading to frustration as we wouldn’t be able to offer any other treatment. Then we became aware of shouting and fighting. Outside our dental surgery (a metal shipping container) a squabble had broken out amongst a group of young men which escalated to the hurling of rocks. Military intervention was swift but such incidents are not uncommon, there is nothing for the camp’s residents to do, factions form and fight each other.
The following morning bright and early we returned to Diavata to collect our equipment to take to Nea Kevala, a camp close to the Macedonian border. Nea Kavala was a disused military airport, the residents were housed in tents erected around the main runway. Our surgery was also in a tent next to the tents of the German Red Cross and the Finnish Red Cross. We set up our “dental chairs” which were massage couches and the tannoy announced that anyone with a dental problem should make their way to our tent.
Orderly and well behaved people queued in the 38 degree heat. The refugees in the camps I visited were mainly Syrians from Aleppo. Inside the tent the 43 degree temperature made our work challenging, it was difficult to put the gloves on and mixing the materials presented difficulty as they had a tendency to set too soon, in addition the process of taking a medical and dental history via interpreters could be slow and frustrating. We found that many patients who would have benefited from an extraction would not agree to this and so we could only offer medication as a temporary relief. There was one young Syrian lady that did allow me to take out a decayed wisdom tooth, it proved to be quite a difficult procedure but successfully completed, however when I showed the patient the offending molar it all proved too much for the interpreter who promptly fainted!
When our team handed over to a dentist and nurse from Toronto I must admit to feeling jealous of them as they were travelling with their own dental equipment and would be able to offer more assistance that we could do.
All the patients were polite and very grateful. There is so much need for dental treatment possibly more than for medical treatment as, fortunately, the refugees in the camps I attended were reasonably healthy. The reality is that the camps will probably house the refugees for some years to come but this is not acknowledged by them, they expect to be going to Germany, Finland or Norway very soon.
I found that whole experience took me well out of my comfort zone but I am hoping to go back. It was intense and moving, I felt great compassion for the unfortunate people who have suffered so greatly. I realise how fortunate I am to be living here in peaceful Rye.
Photo: Kyriacos Hajikakou