Afrah is an 18 year-old from Mosul, in Iraq, who helps with running the We Are One refugee women’s centre on Samos. She’s currently living in the island’s refugee camp, and last week she slipped and fell there, cutting her ankle. It was bothering her when she came to the centre on Monday, when she asked for antiseptic to put on the wound.
After another 24 hours of the unsanitary conditions in the camp, the cut was infected; the surrounding skin alarmingly swollen and red, and causing her considerable pain. I was asked to accompany her to the fantastic free medical services offered by Med’EqualiTeam, and as we walked along the Vathy town seafront to get there, we talked.
At least we tried to. Afrah has some English, and can communicate a lot better than I can manage in Arabic. She spent some time in Turkey on her journey here and picked up some Turkish. I have a rusty GCSE in Turkish so we lurched improbably across linguistic barriers and through tenses until I asked her a slightly more complicated question. She looked quizzically at me and then sang out ‘Goooo-gull!’
She got out a smartphone* and opened up Google Translate. I tapped out my question. She read it and tapped out her response. We had to stop and squint into shadows to make this work, but we got by. The phone itself didn’t help us – Afrah said that she’d brought it with her from Iraq, and the cracks and shattering that crazed its screen certainly looked like a war zone.
In between the easy questions (‘seventh grade’, the highest level of education she’s reached – because ‘there is war. There are no schools’. ‘Business woman’ her dream job) there are trickier ones. Why does she like volunteering at the centre?
‘Gooo-gull!’ she giggles and we get typing again. I learn that she likes to help people, she likes the children. What does she like least? The answer is quick: washing dishes.
And who did she come to Samos with? She tells me about her sister and brother and their mother. I nod enthusiastically – we have already shared her views on the importance of big families and my own shortcomings in not having had any children (and have also shared a photograph from my phone of my sister’s four-year-old as a desperate attempt by me to show that my lack of children of my own doesn’t suggest I actually hate them). But as she tells me about all the family she is with here with she adds ruefully, ‘tent very small. And last month it burned.’ She’s talking about the fire in the 'Jungle' around the refugee camp that left 700 people without shelter. ‘In Iraq,’ she adds, ‘two houses. Then BOOM!’
We don’t need Google to explain.
Afrah and the other nine refugees who help keep the We Are One centre running are, like the non-refugee volunteers not paid for their work. The only compensation the community volunteers get for their help is in perks like being able to use the washing machine at the centre (but when I hear that requests for access to laundry facilities in the camp have taken six months to be granted, the perk seems quite significant) or a weekly movie night with the other international volunteers. But without them the centre would not be able to function. They offer translation, empathy and shared experience for the women who attend the centre, and the ability to mobilise and share news and updates among the refugee community in ways that well-meaning British or American women cannot.
So the nasty wound in Afrah’s foot threatens more than her own comfort – I am also thinking of all the women who use the centre where she helps so much, when I hope that the Med’EqualiTeam will be able to give her something to ease the pain and stop the infection spreading. By the time we reach the doctors she needs to sit down.
We have to wait our turn as the volunteer doctors see to a man with a hernia dressing that needs changing, pregnant women coming for vitamins, a patient needing a tube of Canesten (I’ve been told that ringworm is a recurrent problem here). But as soon as one of the doctors becomes free she takes Afrah’s temperature and gently touches the swollen red ankle, making the girl wince. She says Afrah needs to take a course of antibiotics, and hands her the pills.
We hobble back to the centre and soon Afrah is back in action, clearing away plates (though I never see her washing them…) from the women and children who’ve eaten at the centre today, showing off the certificate she was awarded for completing a basic computer course this week, scooping up a baby that needs comforting while its mother is at an English class, giggling with other volunteers.
Of course I wish Afrah wasn’t here on Samos: I wish there had been no BOOM! in her hometown. But just as she today needed the heroic volunteer doctors of Med’EqualiTeam, there are plenty of others who need all that she brings as a volunteer.
At the end of the day, all the Glocal Roots team at the centre gather for circle time. We join hands and chant together, ‘We are one; we are one! WE ARE ONE!’
*you might be interested in my blog post about refugees' smartphones - https://elizabethgowing.wixsite.com/elizabethonsamos/post/but-they-have-smartphones
Elizabeth Gowing is a storyteller for those making positive change in the world. A writer and presenter who shares her stories on BBC Radio 4, she also offers training and consultancy. Use the contact form if you know stories that need to be told and want her help in telling them.