04 December 2015
“The following testimonal is written by Andrés Rodríguez Holst - a nurse working with the Samu Medical team from Spain. Samu and Bridge2 colborated for the 6th trip in a row to work in Calais, Paris and Dunkirk assisting Refugees fleeing their countries with medical and other practical aid. I feel extremely lucky to have had such a sensitive, and compassionate team with me on the trip and Andres words will, I am sure, dive into your heart just like they did mine - as I read this my eyes filled with tears as he articulated the stories that drilled into my soul those short weeks ago. This is the real deal - not a made up story for the media - a raw on the ground, honest account of one young man’s experience - a man I am very proud to know!” Sarah Griffith
“Soon after arriving, I get a glimpse of something that reminds me of the precarious neighborhoods of some Latin American cities, pathways that resemble streets torn by social marginalization, garbage piles incrusted in the cold mud between camping tents, all alike – what seemed to me – apost-apocalyptic scenario.
People stared at us, estranged and untrusted, as we wore uniforms they didn’t recognize.A child approached me and with nearly perfect English asked me: “What do you bring?”, as if he was used to strangers who always brought things for him. I quickly replied, “Well, what do you need?”. He immediately inspected my uniform and said out loud: “You doctor!” and started forcing a cough and touching his forehead, as if trying to make me understand he had the flu. He then extended his hand and mimicked his hands to throw a pill in his mouth, to which I responded with a gesture telling him that I first needed to check his throat. His only response was a disappointed look and to run away.
We began to walk around the camp, first to meet a group of Syrians that were identified by our liaison from the UK, Sarah Griffith from Bridge2. People started to gather around us, mostly young men which seemed to be in general good health and some with mild walking problems, wearing several layers ofunseasonal clothing. Some spoke varying levels of of English, ranging from a simple “Hello my friend” to college-level proficiency. Intrigued by our presence and knowing we were a medical team on a humanitarian relief mission alongside a UK NGO composed by architects, carpenters and volunteers, they became more relaxed towards us and I felt like we were welcomed with open arms.
We spent lots of time speaking to the young men, most of them were around my age – late twenties. The few who spoke English translated for us as we started sharing a bit about ourselves in order for them to do the same; mostly as a diagnose technique to identify and get acquainted with the psychosocial condition of the community. We shared our intentions with them, including our plans to establish an advanced medical post and asses and treat whatever was in our reach or refer it to the nearest hospital, alongside and with Bridge2’s goals.
Soon enough they shared with us part of their stories: some had fled their city during a bombing, others before ISIS imposed to be recruited or executed, or just because there was nothing left after their families were murdered.
We continued scouting the camp and further along we met with a variety of other NGO’s, all working on their own terms, pace and without any coordination nor collaboration. As we kept walking through the camp, something struck me: the Jungle is loosely and naturally divided by country, with most of the world’s warzones represented. We walked through ‘Afghanistan’, ‘Syria’, ‘Eritrea’ and ‘Sudan’, all living alongside each other. It was immediately clear that these people, fleeing war and persecution, wanted anything but conflict. The ‘mosque’ and the ‘church’ where right next to each other, representing that we are all the same, regardless of religion or race.
As a nurse I had heard tragic stories before. After working in the Emergency Room of the main hospital in a country plagued with drug-related violence, prostitution, off-the-charts domestic violence, brutal traffic accidents, and under a healthcare system on the verge of collapse, you believe that nothing else can surprise you.
I was proven wrong.
Nothing could have prepared me for hearing the stories of these people first hand. The scenario, be it in Calais, Dunkerque or Paris, didn’t matter to me anymore as I had already heard one side of the story: Massive media reporting the tragedy of cosmopolitan cities overrun by migrants truncating their high-end lifestyle. Gladly I got the great gift of learning the other side of the story: These were fellow humans attending their need of survival, letting aside their identity, culture, believes, not knowing if their families were dead or alive, and uncertain about the future.
I heard stories that pierced my heart, some made me question myself, others made me feel guilt, but most of all it showed me who the real heroes are.
A man from Afghanistan told me how he fled his country with over 100 other people with the aim of walking together to England. Many people (mainly women and children) died along the way. They were so hungry they ate grass, and one night, walking through Bulgarian woodlands in the dark, he tripped and a stick pierced through his eye. He spent 2 weeks in hospital in Sofia and the group left him behind. He carried on alone and finally made it to Calais and never found out what happened to the rest of his group.
Then we met three brothers aged 16, 14 and 10. They were alone. Their parents where shot somewhere between Serbia and Hungary; first his mother, and as his father told them to keep running, they heard another shot which silenced the forest as they ran by. The older one had to force the youngest to keep going without hesitation, otherwise they could die too.
A 23-year-old from Darfur, Sudan told us that a drug lord came to his village when he was 18 and burned it to the ground and brutally shot many people, including his dad, just for being black. He was arrested, accused of opposing the government, and put in prison for two years. As soon as he got out, he went back to where the village once was, desperate to find his two little brothers, little sister and mother. He was told his sister was alive and in a nearby town so he went looking for her, but she wasn't there. He searched towns and cities until he was arrested again because travelling through the country is not permitted. Unable to face any more time in prison, he spent all the money he had to be smuggled into Libya. There he started his journey, on foot and alone, to England.
However, as a nurse, which I’m sure many of my fellow colleagues can relate, there’s always that one story and/or patient that stands out amongst the others because their story sparks a strong emotional response and reflection.
Along the different places we attended we used to look out for those who spoke the most fluent English, as Spanish was our first language, and were willing to help us translate from Farsi, Arab, and French to explore symptoms and explain the medical treatment. Along the few who assisted us, we met outstanding men, women and children, all whom were extremely grateful for our work. As days went by we created a wonderful relationship with them. In my experience, all of those who worked alongside with me are outstanding.
One in particular I spent the most time with, as he stood by my side from the moment I arrived until I left at night. He seemed trouble-less, always smiling, tall, scrappy, wearing a ragged jumper, oversized pants tightened by a belt and shoes covered with a plastic bag. And in spite of this, he always seemed to be having a great day. Between our spare time, he told me his story.
Chemist by profession, Master’s Degree in biochemistry, fluent in English, French and Arab, a bit of German and eager for me to teach him Spanish. He lost his job in Damascus when the company he worked for decided to end operations during the start of the civil conflicts in Syria by November 2012, which made him take a teaching job at Damascus University. His father was killed by Jihadists in October 2013.
With his head faced down, he told me that by May 2014 both of his older brothers were abducted by ISIS and until this day he’s unaware of their whereabouts, or even if they are dead or alive. He proceeds to ask me about my country as a way to drop the subject of himself. I tell him that I come from a small country and mentioned a few facts about Costa Rica, but it was when I told him that we have no national army that he looked up in astonishment and asked in shock: “How is it possible? Why does it not have an army? Who protects you?”. In his world it was unconceivable of any possibility of a country without an army, a country with no disputes or threats.
He carries on with his story. His mother and five sisters died during a bombing in Damascus, and that’s when he decided to fly into Syria with his younger brother and only known alive relative. They started the usual track from Turkey through half of Europe in about two months. When they reached Germany the police caught his brother and threw him in jail, leaving him no choice than to keep ontravelling on his own. “I kept alone most of the journey” he told me. Without me asking he says that he doesn't feel the hunger or the cold, he just feels the pain of his lost family. Each time he says the word family, his voice breaks and he puts his head in his hands. Then, he starts crying, and tells me that every time he closes his eyes he sees his mother telling him he is a good boy and that he is doing the right thing. “I’ve tried to help as much people as I could along the way, I’ve been the best son and man I could, and I’ve been faithful to Allah” he says looking straight at me. “Why then, am I living like an animal?” he asked me, sobbing.
His words still pierce me as if I’m standing in front of him again, tears down his cheeks, and I feel perplexed and disgusted with what our race has become. Here I am standing in front of a kind, educated and brave man, who has no idea when his next meal will be, whether his brothers are dead or alive and where they are, thinking about his lost mother. Nothing had prepared me in life for this moment, and what only came to my mind was to tell him I’ve never felt more proud of anyone before, which he responded: “You should not be proud, as I’m not moved by determination, rather because the only thing I’ve got left to lose is my life”.
I had no words for him.
He proceeds to explain to me how every night he walks a few miles to the tunnel in an attempt to make it to England, although he was taking a couple days of recess to allow his leg to heal. He then showed me a huge bruise on his calf from where he had been hit by a police baton, which I proceed to check and wrap up.
After a while and after assisting some more patients, other members of the Syrian community searched the surroundings to find the most mismatch selection of chairs and made us tea over an open fire. “You are our guests”, they told us in front of the opening to their makeshift tents. He translated their stories for me and I realized that the people in this camp don't want to come to England, but rather they have no other choice. They are the real heroes. Their stories show more determination, strength and courage than anything I have ever heard among my ER stories. They should be an inspiration to us all, yet they are portrayed by our media as a drain to our society, scrounging our benefits. This couldn't be further from the truth, these people want to work, want to earn enough money to pay taxes, and want to be given the opportunities they deserve. These people are not migrants, they are refugees.
They can't go back, but they can't go forward, they are stuck, trying to create some kind of normal life from a bit of tarpaulin and a blanket.
All of them are people deprived from opportunities, left aside by society, left alone to die because no one wants to take responsibility for them.
No one is exempted from becoming the next refugee and it is sad to see that we disregard that fact that refugee camps across Europe increase their population every day and schools and universities in Middle East are being bombed by the hour, rather to change our attitude towards it.
It stunned me how many of them didn't want us to take their picture, scared of the negative media representation, also in case their families faced repercussions under repressive governments back home. But mostly because they are also ashamed; ashamed to be living in such an undignified manner.
This man is my hero, and just as him there are thousands of stories unheard. I wish every story could be exposed so every refugee gets the admiration and every one of them can become someone else’s hero in order to change one life at the time.
Like an epiphany, a sign in the camp read “We must all learn to live together like brothers, or we will die together like idiots”.
We are full throttle head-first dying like idiots.”
Nurse with the Spanish Samu Emergency Medical Team
On Bridge2 and Samu aid trip to Calais and Dunkirk November 2015