It was 2015 and millions of refugees were arriving on the shores of Greece. I watched in horror as images spread online of bodies washed up on beaches. I was a nurse practitioner, having graduated from St. Kate’s 18 months earlier. I had backpacked through many countries, including those in the Middle East, after college. I wanted to get a better cultural understanding of Islam, since I would have many Muslim patients in Minnesota. After seeing the images of refugees, I felt I had to do something. It wasn’t long before I was on a plane heading for northern Greece.
By then, millions of people had fled their war-torn country, crossed over the Aegean Sea into Greece, and traveled further into Europe to join their families. The countries bordering Greece reacted by closing their borders. They set up tall fences with huge coils of barbed wire on top and in front of the fences. On the other side were tanks pointed towards “Idomeni camp” and army stations. People tried to cross a river so they could get around the fence, but many drowned.
Idomeni was the name of a large farm field in northern Greece along the Macedonian border. There were 35,000 refugees gathered here, as it was an important point where trains ran from Greece to Macedonia. They slept on the tracks to stop train transport of goods, hoping to peacefully protest in this manner until the borders re-opened. The local town is very small and rural, and there is only one ambulance for the region. Riot police often came into the camp when protests escalated. They would spray the crowds with mace and shoot rubber bullets larger than golf balls.
It was a horrible situation, but people really wanted to travel through.
When I arrived in Macedonia, I joined a humanitarian organization of people from around the world, called the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). We met each other at camp, worked out of a van rented by SAMS, and carried medications and supplies in our backpacks. We simply pulled onto the edge of the sprawling camp and started assessing and treating people right outside the van in a farm field.
The experience was overwhelming. I had never witnessed such a crisis and, at the same time, experienced such loving energy. Refugees who were bilingual came to help us translate. Kids pulled on our sleeves to play, people brought us hot tea in whatever containers they could find. Families insisted we eat their food rations to keep our energy to do the work. Rations consisted of an apple, banana, bread and a bottle of water a day. Often refugees stood in line for two hours to receive this daily allotment.
Everyone was so friendly and grateful that we were there. I was often asked about my family and where I came from. They wanted to know how my parents were doing, even though they had never met them. Women invited me in their tent to lay on their mat to rest and attended to me as if I was an honored guest in their home.
One day, not long after I arrived, was the most tragic day I’d ever experienced. A young man was accidentally crushed by a bus that was used to transport the riot police. He had lost so much blood that we knew he had no chance of surviving, but wanted to stabilize him through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, a medical air bag and chest compressions, until an ambulance could arrive. It took an hour for that to happen, before he was taken to a hospital, where he died.
The energy during that hour was intense, with word spreading that the police had done this. I watched as people reacted with every emotion you can imagine. There was fear, screaming anger, uncontrollable sobbing. I saw some people faint and others rage. Riot police pushed in, escalating the emotions. Tear gas rolled across the camp. Sound bombs fired, triggering every child’s post-war trauma.
After what seemed like an eternity, it was all over. The crowd dispersed. The man was on his way to the hospital. I fell to the dirt and felt completely hopeless and defeated.
Many people have been affected by the refugee crisis, and this was a small number of people in Greece. It did not include those seeking refuge in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and so many other places. The suffering is immense. The people I saw in Greece were the lucky ones. They had the money and health to travel that far. I knew I hadn’t even seen the worst of it.
I came to Macedonia with full intent to make a difference. On that tragic day of the bus accident, I started to feel that my efforts were a joke.
A young man named Ahmed, who was an English major, a poet, and a refugee, was volunteering as a translator. He saw me sitting in the dirt and asked, “My friend, what’s wrong?”
I explained to him that I was leaving in a few days and I hadn’t changed anything. The situation there was only getting worse.
“No my friend, you have it all wrong,” he replied, “There is a verse in the Quran I will share with you. ‘To kill one person is to kill all of humanity, but to save a person is to save all of humanity.’”
He went on to explain that if you save one life, you also save all the children they would have, and their children’s children. The difference we make to one life transcends our lifetime. “The change will be beyond your understanding,” he said.
This brief but powerful conversation has kept me going since, no matter how exhausted I feel or how emotionally difficult the work is.
How to Keep Going
I’ve continued to provide care in military camps in Northern Greece, on the front lines during the battle against ISIS in Mosul, in Iraq, and in Puerto Rico shortly after hurricane Irma.
As I write this, I leave on an airplane today for Lebanon on the Syrian border, where people are dying from hypothermia at night. There I will lead a team, including 10 other Minnesotans. In July I will lead a medical training mission to Egypt.
Over the last few years of volunteering as a nurse practitioner — caring for those suffering from war, genocide, or natural disaster — I have evolved. This work has changed me.
A few years ago, my goal was to find a soulmate and have children. Now I am in love with something larger than one person, and I love the privilege of being able to care for children all over the world.
I’ve left a comfortable job and my home, and let go of objects I’ve hauled with me over the years. I’m coming up with ideas to make a living while allowing me the freedom to respond when my crisis skills are needed.
I have the rare opportunity to follow my soul path. I am excited by where this journey will take me. I love being surrounded by amazing, intelligent and loving people from all over the world.
Of course, it’s not all positive. I find myself struggling with depression and exhaustion. I struggle with wanting to practice self-care, and not finding the energy and time to do so. People know me as strong and determined. But sometimes my heart can’t take any more suffering.
When I am at my lowest and ready to give up, I see the faces of the individuals I have connected with. I know my Syrian American Medical Society family is only a phone call away. I remember Ahmed’s recitation from the Quran. “To save a person is to save all of humanity.”
Lindsey Smith is the first non-Syrian and second woman president of the Syrian American Medical Society Minnesota chapter. She serves on SAMS Global Response, focusing efforts on serving countries in crisis and natural disasters outside of the Syrian Conflict.