Farewell to Greece

Conor Kenny is a doctor working with refugees in Greece. He began his assignment working at Idomeni, a transit camp for refugees on the Greek border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. After residents of the Idomeni camp were evicted, Conor moved to Lesbos to work providing healthcare in specialised camps designated for the most vulnerable refugees on the island.

This blog was first published in the Irish Times.

It is approaching 7pm in Lesbos and the intense mid-afternoon heat that scorches the desert-like ground is beginning to dissipate – facilitated in part by a light westerly breeze. I perch on an upturned wooden crate propped up by a blue shipping container, waiting for my lift back to base.

Staring in the distance I watch the beautiful orange glow of the sun setting over the hills surrounding the camp, momentarily illuminating the few sparse, wispy clouds which have formed into golden rivers in the sky.  It signals the end of my assignment here.

It has been a calm shift to end on. The contrast from day one of my assignment, in the camp in Idomeni, is not lost on me. This camp for unaccompanied minors has been my workplace for the last six weeks. It is intense, but a different intensity to that of Idomeni. Working with children requires a different – more holistic – medical approach. Education is a key part of the role I play. I am continually surprised by their ability to understand basic medical concepts – theories such as rational antibiotic usage – which are often lost on adults.

 The only difference to the ‘typical’ British or Irish patient was the language, location and journeys it took patients to get here.

I re-consider whether I have properly said my farewells to the children I work with. I have purposely downplayed my goodbyes. Having observed the high turnover of people in the lives of these children, I am aware of the effect with which overstated goodbyes have on their emotional health. They are craving a form of stability in their chaotic lives. I do not want to be part of the problem. A brief nod of my head toward their tents and a salute of appreciation. Under my breath I wish them the best of luck in the future.

The gentle silence of the evening is broken by my lift turning into the gravel car-park of the camp followed by a trail of dust swirling in the breeze. I load my kit in the boot, take my seat and we drive back home through the twilight along the winding coastal road. The 45-minute journey gives me time to reflect on my time working in this corner of southern Europe.

Immediately my mind takes me back to Idomeni, stark images of a man in his 40s, grown dishevelled in a colourful stripy button down shirt, black suit trousers and mismatched runners, devoid of dignity, pleading in desperation for help through a barbed-wire fence. Seeing my breath in the dim light of the consultation room whilst warming my stethoscope as I assess a Syrian child with a chest infection during a freezing night shift. An elderly woman praying for help during the Idomeni eviction

An elderly woman praying for help during the Idomeni eviction

A woman prays in the refugee camp at Idomeni, which was shut down in May 2016. Photo: Conor Kenny / MSF

The positive memories of my work were also powerful. Memories largely of hope in the face of tragedy. Hope fuelled by a basic belief that their lives could be no worse than what they had just experienced. Hope seen in the eyes of mum and dad as I checked their newborn baby in a tent in the middle of a waterlogged field. Hope in the hearts of families with no safer way to travel, waiting to be smuggled into the unknown by faceless individuals. Hope in the eyes of resolute mothers waiting in the vaccination line aiming to give their children every chance of a better life. 

Handmade sign reads 'HOPE';.

A hand-painted sign at the camp. Photo: Conor Kenny / MSF

Many of the characters who came into the clinics were unforgettable. The colour, culture, expressions – those who gave great energy to my day and variety to working here. In hindsight the only difference to the ‘typical’ British or Irish patient was the language, location and journeys it took patients to get here. There was the anxious mother with her teenage son. The young pregnant woman with her husband looking for advice. The man in his mid-50s with heart disease who will not stop smoking. The elderly grandmother with arthritis in her knees needing pain relief. 

Dr Conor Kenny assesses a child in Greece

Photo: Conor Kenny / MSF

I have no idea what will happen these people in the future. Needless to say they will endure further politically driven heartache. It is my hope that Europe may eventually start to learn the lessons from this migrant crisis and avoid the self-imposed catastrophe – epitomised by the disaster in Idomeni.

Working in this environment reinforces that you are only as good as the people around you. To all the people whom I had the pleasure of working with – through good times and bad and to those who followed me on this journey – thank you for your support. Finally, to the refugees I met, if Idomeni taught me one thing – keep your hope, the darkest moment comes before the dawn.

Tents with the mountains behind wreathed in cloud

Idomeni Refugee Camp, which was shut down in May 2016. Photo: Conor Kenny / MSF

The team at the camp

Some of the MSF team at the refugee camp in Idomeni. Photo: Conor Kenny / MSF

You can read all of Conor's posts from Greece here

This blog post appears on Everyday Emergency, the MSF podcast


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