We have been providing primary medical care to refugees in Northern Greece since May 22, 2016. The camp is the only one of its kind — a factory converted into single-room apartments that are a far cry from the miserable tented camps across town. It allows the families lucky enough to live there to live in dignity and relative comfort.
After arriving at the clinic in Greece, I spent time with Team Rubicon’s volunteer staff who are on constant two-week rotations. While observing their clinical operations, I met two Syrian teenagers named Omaid and Marwan (names have been changed) who had been serving as interpreters for them. Omaid and Marwan were brothers from Damascus, and when the fighting had grown too fierce their mother and father paid smugglers everything they had to sneak the two boys to the border. Had they not left they would have been forcibly conscripted into Assad’s army and sent to the front lines as cannon fodder.
The next day I joined Omaid and Marwan in their sparsely adorned room with their mother and young sister, a girl of only 11 or 12. I asked their mother to tell me her story. Using her sons as interpreters, the mother began. She was a French language professor at the university in Damascus. She spoke about how she’d fretted for years as the fighting crept closer and closer to her neighborhood until the shelling and aerial bombing finally began. The conversation lasted for over an hour and I hung on every word.
“The world thinks we’re terrorists,” she exclaimed at one point. “But we’re not. My sons want to be doctors and engineers. I’m a professor at a university. Why can’t anyone treat us like humans?”
Why indeed, I wondered.
I needed to speak to more residents so I went next door to meet with a young, 20-year-old Iraqi man from Mosul who was living in a 15′ x 20′ room with three brothers, his parents, and his aunt. His name was Yusuf and his English was just good enough to make conversation possible. Yusuf invited us in and we removed our shoes to join him in the center of the room. My joints groaned as I gently lowered my body to the concrete floor and respectfully tucked my feet under my legs. Yusuf sent his younger brother, Mustafa, to go and get his father. Minutes later a tall, brooding man with a thick Iraqi mustache entered the door and sat down opposite me.
“This is my father, Hussein,” Yusuf stated.
Hussein stared at me with equal parts suspicion and curiosity, respect, and contempt. It instantly felt like every sit down I’d had with an Iraqi elder nine short years ago. The conversation started off a bit rocky, with Hussein rattling off a series of questions in harsh Arabic that Yusuf translated to us. “Why didn’t the clinic have an ambulance? What happens if someone has an emergency? How long will you be staying?” None of our answers seemed to suffice, and for a while I thought that everyone was simply wasting their time.
Hussein looked over to his wife and muttered something in Arabic. Minutes later the wife and aunt were pouring piping hot chai into cups on the floor. Hussein’s smaller sons were crawling all over him and though he pretended to be annoyed, you could see the love flash briefly across his face. I took a sip and looked across the brim of the mug, instantly transported back to Iraq. I smiled at Hussein. He didn’t quite smile back.
Finally, I remembered some of the cultural lessons I’d learned in Iraq. Iraqi men respect strength. I sat up a bit taller, lowered my voice ever so slightly, looked him more intensely in the eye, and relayed stronger answers back through his son. There was a glimmer of amusement in Hussein’s eye. The banter got more friendly and personal.
“What did you do before you ran this Rubicon-Team?” he asked.
“I was a jundi,” I replied, using the Iraqi word for the lowest rank in the military. That elicited a bewildered smile. Who is this crazy American, I could see him thinking. Turns out Hussein had been a nurse and truck driver in Saddam’s army decades prior.
His son, Yusuf, leaned in. “You were in the American army?” he asked. I decided not to correct him on the differences between the Marine Corps and the Army. “Yes,” I replied. He proceeded to tell me that he was six when the Americans invaded his city. With a look that indicated he wasn’t sure how I’d react he proceeded to tell me that he had no love for the American military, but that he knew there were good jundis like me. He then told me that his neighborhood is now controlled by ISIS and that he does not know what has happened to many of his friends. The girls were probably raped and the boys…his voice trailed off. He then made a slash across his throat. He described fleeing Mosul as ISIS entered the city and then, with a painful smile on this face, he told me that if I listened to his stories that I would cry.
I looked at Yussuf and told him I was sorry. I wasn’t apologizing for myself, or for America. I was simply sorry that such a kind, young man had been forced to live a life of violence for 14 years.
Hussein demanded that we stay for lunch. By this time the mood had lightened and the conversation was full of laughter and jokes. I decided to shift the conversation. “What do you want to study at the university?” I asked Yussuf.
“I want to be a doctor,” he proudly proclaimed. He pointed to his eyes. “I want to be a doctor for the eyes, because the eyes they are, how do you say? They are the gateway to the world.”
I thought about that for a moment. I thought about Yussuf wanting to preserve sight for those around him, even after his own sight had brought such horror and tragedy to his own memory. I could sense that he knew what I was thinking and he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I eventually left Hussein, Yussuf and Mustafa and returned home to the U.S.
Over the course of 24 hours of flying, I had plenty of time to think about my interactions with both families. I couldn’t help but think that their suffering and heartache was intertwined with what every US citizen had felt 15 years ago on 9/11, that the world was too small and humanity too tight-knit for us to ignore it.
There is evil in this world, that much I am sure of. I saw the vestiges of it at Mauthausen, witnessed it on 9/11, and fought it tooth and nail while in the Marines. We must have courage and resolve to face it, and thankfully we have heroes willing to kick in doors in the dark of night to battle it.
But we also need a different kind of courage. The kind of courage required to battle our prejudices, ignore our fears of those that are different, and reach out with empathy and compassion to those in need of shelter from that evil. America’s might has never been questioned in my lifetime, and I hope it never will. What I hope to see is for America’s kindness to achieve the same repute.