Displaced but Not Dejected

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Allyn Harris, MD

Dr. Harris is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center with an appointment at the G.V. Sonny Montgomery VA Medical Center.
She is sub-specialty trained in pulmonary and critical care medicine and has a special interest in constrictive bronchiolitis affecting veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On deployment with Team Rubicon, she served in Operation Hermes providing medical care to the refugee population in northern Greece.

Freshman year of college can be the first taste of adulthood for many, but while her American counterparts were pledging sororities and planning spring break trips, an 18-year-old named Rama had already survived a 2-year siege of her village by the Syrian Arab Army. As a high school student, Rama lived with her family in a village outside the southern Syrian city of Dara’a where her father worked as the town’s pharmacist. The Free Syrian Army and subsequent revolution originated in Dara’a in 2011, thereby making it the first battleground of the now 5-year-old sectarian war.

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Throughout the siege, her father, along with one doctor, did what he could to care for the residents’ medical issues. In 2013, the Free Syrian Army was able to beat back Assad’s forces and break the siege, but the reprieve was short-lived as Russian airstrikes soon followed. Rama’s mother and three brothers fled, but Rama was determined to pursue her degree in English literature and remained in the city while attending a university. Perhaps she modeled her bravery after her father who also refused to leave the city, where he routinely issued medicines from his pharmacy free of charge to those in need.

For Rama, it became too perilous to remain in Dara’a, because in addition to the danger of bombing raids, she was now a high-value target for kidnapping. Along with her mother and brothers, she left Syria on foot with only what could be carried. They would plan to leave Syria from its northern border, cross Turkey, and enter Europe by way of Greece. As they moved into Turkey however, Rama became separated from her family and was taken at gunpoint by Turkish border guards into the Nur Mountains. She spent several days captive until a stranger came upon her position and negotiated her release. Reunited with her family, they entered Greece via a crowded boat and spent the winter months exposed to the cold in various tent cities. Unable to leave Greece for another European country due to the EU-Turkey agreement enacted in March 2016, Rama and her family were fighting to survive in sub-standard living conditions.

In the summer of 2016, their situation improved when she and her family were brought to a camp unlike the others, which was made possible through the repurpose and renovation of a former textile factory in northern Greece by a private donor. This space houses approximately 160 refugees identified as the most vulnerable by the Ministry of Migration, with plans to increase capacity to 600. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) governs the rights of this group, which according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, include access to health services equivalent to that of the host population. In a country like Greece, however, where native born citizens struggle to receive health care, the refugee population is largely underserved. Emergency care can sometimes be obtained, but outpatient services including management of chronic medical problems and a triage system for urgent and emergent needs are lacking.

Team Rubicon, a U.S. based non-profit uniting the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to provide disaster relief and humanitarian aid, is standing in this gap.

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Team Rubicon (TR) has helped infuse hope into the camp in more ways than one. The primary purpose of Operation Hermes is to provide medical care to this vulnerable population by tapping into the skills of volunteer military veterans and medical providers. While they are proficiently accomplishing this goal, they have also brought life to Rama and others like her in an unanticipated way.

At its inception, TR identified a need among military veterans to find purpose in their post-deployment worlds and met this need by providing a place for them to use their many skills in the service of others. In Greece, TR has extended this core mission beyond team members, reaching out into the resident population and handing Rama and others the same chance. Psychology texts teach that once the basic needs of safety, food, and shelter are met, the individual’s need for purpose emerges, and it is no different in the refugee population. In fact, it is at this point that the word “refugee” and the helplessness that it connotates no longer seem appropriate.

The camp is the temporary home to intelligent, talented, and warm people who would be an asset to any community.

Among its halls are men and women with professional degrees, college students anxious to resume their studies, and multilingual children who, displaced from their homes, wait for the chance to resume their lives.

Rama is serving as an interpreter in the primary care clinic.

There is no better example of this than Rama who is described by Sandra Hankins, director of the clinic, as “a bright, compassionate, and driven young woman, always helping everyone and constantly offering solutions to every problem, especially in the community.” Rama is finding purpose in her new community by serving as an interpreter for Team Rubicon in the medical clinic, where she acts as a vital link in the delivery of care between the English speaking medical providers and the Arabic speaking resident population.

Rama has also applied for a U.S. student visa with the hopes of returning to academics soon. Operation Hermes team member, Ed Resch, describes her as “the embodiment of resilience.” He goes on to say, “As the trajectory of her life has changed course, she looks to the challenges that lie ahead with optimism.”

Team Rubicon members run through commonly used phrases for patients.

In the meantime, she waits on action from the Ministry of Migration and is able to video chat nightly with her father who remains in Syria, continuing to serve others as a White Helmet. With him as her role model, Rama says she will do what she can, where she can, for whom she can until the day her family is reunited in a place where normal life can resume.

While the current refugee crisis has brought out a divisiveness as old as time among some, Rama cuts through it by reminding us how alike we all are in this world.

“We are all just people. We all want the best lives for ourselves and our families,” she says.

When all is said and done, the country that finally calls this remarkable young woman its own will be a better place because of her.