Reconnecting Refugees' Bodies and Souls: A Haifa Resident's Humanitarian Mission

Although traumatized after his first experience helping beleaguered refugees who landed on Greece’s shores, psychologist Essam Daod decided to establish Humanity Crew, an aid agency that offers not only medical care but social support – in Arabic.

Ayelett Shani
A Syrian man helps a girl to disembark from a dinghy used by refugees and migrants to arrive to Mytilene, Lesbos, February 29, 2016.
A Syrian man helps a girl to disembark from a dinghy used by refugees and migrants to arrive to Mytilene, Lesbos, February 29, 2016.Credit: AP
Ayelett Shani

Essam Daod, a resident of Haifa, is a 33-year-old child and adolescent psychologist, and the founder of the Humanity Crew – Volunteers for Humanity aid agency. Daod went with his wife Maria, a lawyer, to help refugees landing in Greece.

When did you first get to Lesbos and why?

In October 2015 I received an email asking for volunteer doctors who speak Arabic to join an aid delegation to Greece. They were looking for GP’s, surgeons and psychiatrists. After graduating from medical school I specialized in surgery and a few years later I decided to move to psychiatry, so I thought I fit the bill.

I called my wife, Maria, who works as a lawyer, and told her I was going. She said “I’m coming with you”. I asked her “what would you do there?” And she said “you don’t worry, I’ll find something to do".

What did you know of the place before going there? What did you know of the situation?

What everybody knows through the press. That there is a crisis, that there are refugees arriving by boats, that there is plenty of suffering.

You arrived there on the assumption you were going to provide psychological support to refugees.

That’s what I thought. But then on the very same day I arrived I found myself standing at the beach resuscitating a Syrian lady who fatally drowned inside the boat.

What do you mean – drowned inside the boat?

The boats are always full of water. They carry way too many people. When they organize people inside the boats they place the women, children and bags at the center of the boat whilst the men sit further out from the center to balance the vessel. The women simply have no space and are hemmed in. They arrive with numb feet because of the cold and the water and poor blood circulation. Sometimes it takes them over an hour to regain movement. That’s why when a boat capsize, they are the first to drown. In this case the lady passed out in the boat and they could not pull her out. It was clear that she was dead, but her family members were unable to accept it. They were just screaming and shouting. Usually after an initial shock the mind adjusts, no matter how difficult the situation is.

Someone has to go “Okay, what happens now, help us” but in this particular instance that didn’t happen. I figured out that I had to do a CPR for their sake, in order for them to comprehend that she was gone, so that they could come to terms with it.

Horrible. Maybe it’s worth explaining: The refugees arrive from Syria to Turkey, and from there they try to reach Greece, to receive shelter from the EU. How many people passed through Lesbos this year?

Over half a million. During the period I mentioned it could have been a rate of 8,000 a day. 34% of those are Children, By the way, and 21% women.

Lesbos is very close to the Turkish shores. In normal conditions, how long does it take to cross this journey by boat?

45 minutes, one hour at most.

And what happens in practice, when the boats are so crowded?

Obviously some boats never make it and sink. Others arrive after five, sometimes six hours. Some get stuck but get lucky and find help from local fishing or volunteer boats. In some cases the men jump off when the boats start capsizing, thinking it will help save the children and women inside, and when volunteers come to the rescue it's already too late for most of them . The boats always arrive full of water. Everyone is always drenched, soaking wet and freezing. Sometimes kids simply slip from their parents’ grip and fall into the water, because of the waves rocking the boat. once, an Afghan baby fell from his parents’ hands. They reached the shore but because no one there could speak Afghani, they couldn’t even explain what had happened to them.

God, what horror.

Yes, at this meeting point between the refugees’ desperation and the smugglers’ greed and cruelty, a real jungle has been created.

This smuggling, this right to board a boat to Greece, costs a lot of
money doesn’t it?

Between $1,200 US dollars and $3000 US dollars per head. If the coast guard catches them and forces the boat to return – the refugees have to pay again for a new journey, of course. I met several families who had to pay three, four or five times and were simply left with nothing.

How is this link between the refugees and smugglers/traffickers forged?

It happens already In Istanbul. They have these sorts of offices that organize the trafficking. They purchase tickets, the traffickers promise them all sorts of things – a life jacket, dry clothes on the other side, a calm cruise of 20 people per boat. It's all lies of course. The minute they board the busses going to the coast, all of that ends and the true face of the traffickers is revealed.

Which is? What happens then?

The Turkish coastline, which we nicknamed “HELL”, is governed by mafias and organized crime of all creed and denomination. Turkish mafia, Syrian mafia, Pakistani mafia. You name it. The refugee busses make their way from Istanbul to Izmir through the forests to evade the police.

The moment you board the bus you cannot actually get off it, because you have already seen the smugglers’ faces. Many refugees simply ‘disappear’ on the way. Many get beaten or sexually assaulted. Women are raped; there are some truly shocking stories. When they finally arrive to the coastal area, the refugees then have to wait. It can sometimes take hours or days until the right opportunity comes to launch out the boat. this happens when the police are away and the coastal guards are nowhere in sight, so they are free to load a new boat. And these are bad boats. Flimsy rubber dinghies, with small cheap engines, which are supposed to contain, in the best of circumstances 20 people. The smugglers cram 50-60 people into each and then add all their baggage and personal belongings on top. They then take off, having paid $1,500 Us dollars, on average per person. But after a few meters the boats start filling with water because of the weight. At that point the smugglers order them to throw their bags overboard. they obey. It is then that a jet ski appears and collects these bags for the smugglers – the bags of course usually contain money, gold, and other valuables. This way the smugglers double their income.

Heart warming.

That’s not even the start of it. What the refugees don’t realize is that their smuggler jumps off the boat, before they enter Greek territorial waters. other smugglers pick him up with a jet ski. The refugees remain completely alone, stranded in the boat, in the middle of the sea. They have the task of controlling the boat and sailing to shore. Some boats run out of fuel, or are unable to control the boat and sail it properly, or find it hard to figure, under the stress of the situation, that steering left takes them right and vice versa, and they are completely lost. For most them it is also the first time ever at sea. That’s why when a boat nears the shore, the first thing you hear is the screaming. People are in panic. Recently smugglers started using wooden yachts. These are unseaworthy boats that have been taken out of circulation. You can load up to 400 people on these yachts. Each one pays $3,000 dollars. They are loaded like sardines. It’s crazy when you see it. They too get their bags stolen in the same way.

The difficulty with these ships is that they are really hard to manoeuvre and their mooring is also difficult to control. So what happens is that at about 50-60 meters after sailing, the boats start to sink, because the bottom gives way. These are the big catastrophes, which you later read about in the papers. It is something, which really, if you are not there to witness for yourself, you cannot really fathom. I will certainly not forget it all my life.

Tell me.

It was at the end of October. The weather was relatively good. We stood there, five members from the Spanish aid organization “Pro Activa” and myself, on a cliff above the shore. We spotted a large wooden vessel that launched from the Turkish side and we began tracking it. Shortly after that we started seeing orange dots – life vests – just popping out of the the water. Like a ball that you push under water and it jumps up again. We still didn’t get what was going on. At first, we thought it was a small boat going down. One of the guys had a thermal camera with an insane resolution – you could see people walking on the Turkish side with it. He suddenly called out to me and said “Doc, come over here, I just counted more than 100 people, probably 200 or 300 people.”

In the water.

Yes. He knew precisely why he was calling out these numbers. He wanted me to understand it was not a small rubber boat drowning but a wooden yacht that had collapsed. And then he said he could see on the surface black dots that keep disappearing. People drowning. Then all hell broke loose.

The Spanish crews rushed to the site with a jet ski. We alerted all the organizations and groups that we could. The Greek coastal guard arrived, fishing vessels came for the rescue – everyone started pulling people out, some using the boats some even using fishing nets. We were on the beach doing resuscitations. One after the other. Children with their parents, children without their parents, it was such chaos. This one died, leave him, this one will not make it, leave him. There were only one or maybe two oxygen tanks around. No medicines. All manual CPR’s . Dozens and dozens of resuscitations. We stayed on the beach till 1 a.m. The Greeks took the children into their homes, opened churches and schools so people could spend the night there. Volunteers gave up their hotel rooms so that the refugees could sleep there. The next day all that was left of all this tragedy was a laconic newspaper headline announcing “242 people were rescued by the Greek coastal guard”.

Did that anger you?

I was livid. Everyone knew that over 100 bodies were left in the water.
because we chose the living, but the story of those who died was never told. They wanted to avoid headlines that would ignite global attention. It’s much nicer to have a positive headline. The numbers of those rescued. Even we, who were there on that day, understood the magnitude of this disaster only later. For days bodies kept washing onto the shores. People who were told lies about paying more money for a safer boat, and then the top floor collapsed on the lower level and they all perished.

We have recordings of people put inside the boat one on top of the of the other, you can hear them begging the smugglers to stop, that the boat is making screeching sounds, but the smugglers kept loading more and more people. The boat’s captain fled. The pick up boat that came to collect him even nudged the collapsing boat and almost turned it upside down. Shots were fired in the air.

There are no words.

In the recordings, I heard a chilling dialogue between a mother and her seven-year-old son. They both spent 5 hours in the water until someone saved them. The father and sister in that family had drowned. As they are in the water the boy tells his mother “ I want to die, like all the bodies around me, look at this body, maybe its dad” and she tells him its not his father, that his father has different hair, that he is a strong man and has probably made it onto the beach. So the headlines are the story of those who survived and those who died. But that is not the story. The story is the story of this mother who went to identify the bodies of her husband and daughter and passed out, she wanted to jump out the window and Maria, my wife, pinned her down by her feet.

You tell such horrible things. We are both constantly crying. How did you withstand all this? What did it do to you?

In the first three days after this episode my condition had really worsened. The bodies kept coming out. Some I collected in my car. Children too. It was then that all sorts of things started to happen to me. It seemed to me that I was hearing the sound of an approaching boat, the sound of people crying. I would run to the beach and volunteers would stop me saying there was nothing to run to. I would see blinking lights, like the cellphone lights refugees flash when they near the shore. I had nightmares. I’d wake up crying. Just think what it’s like to drive a car with a body in the back seat and you are searching for someone to take it.

You put on the music and you try to forget- but then you remember. You have a smoke, you laugh, cry. sort of a psychotic state , where you simply don’t understand what is happening. Then I realized I had to leave.

Before you lose it.

Yes. I then went to speak to my wife, who was working in the camps. I wanted to tell her that I want to go back home.

What was she actually doing there?

She was spending time with the families, looking after them, supporting them. After this disaster with the boat she had so much work. She did things that no one else thought of doing. She went to where the refugees were gathered, collected SIM cards from damaged phones, put the SIM cards into her phone, went into their photo libraries and then asked them “who was missing from this picture?” “How old was this woman? What was her name?” She then made photo screens. she collected more than eighty photos of missing persons that way. She created the only database that the authorities have of that tragedy. It is still being used. And she didn’t only do it for the documentation; she did it to save the families from having to identify bodies. She didn’t want to hear about going back home. When I came to speak to her, she was sitting in the camp with a family that had lost three children in that journey. it had only been one day since her last visit, and the mother was already very angry with her. She was totally dependent upon her. I understood she could not leave her. I then told Maria, listen, come back with me and I promise you we will come back here again. This time we will do it differently. We will set something up; we will come back when we have something to give.

And then you started your own aid organization called Humanity Crew.

Yes, in less than a month we registered a charity and set it all up. It took us three weeks to set up the legal and formal part, a website, twitter account, Facebook page, bank account, steering committee, an external auditor, we started setting up teams.

And what was your intention for such an organization, what was the idea?

Initially I thought of medical aid. But when we were home and the idea was still fluid, Maria told me of a kid named Ahmed . We gave him CPR and managed to save him. The fate of his parents was uncertain. She told me how he lay in bed for three days with eyes wide open, not sleeping, not responding or eating and not talking at all. As if his neurons were shutting down one by one. Maria sat by his side, spoke to him, tried lifting him up from his condition. It took a few days before he held her hand, came out of bed, put his hands on the window and said, “ I want home”. When she told me this story I began crying. Because this boy, in my head, was a success story. A successful CPR. And then I understood something very deep. That I was still in that place of “ I pulled people out of the water” - it was my 15 minutes of fame. But what Maria had done was far more significant. Even if it’s not photogenic, like pulling people off the boat. I realized that this Superman syndrome, which I constantly saw with other volunteers, was probably something I had myself, because I really need to be with these people, not on the beach.

To be a psychiatrist rather than a doctor.

right. Its great to do CPR, but who is watching over the kids who spent five hours at sea amongst bodies, those who saw and experienced rape and sexual assault in Turkey and war, death and orphanage in Syria? Who there even speaks Arabic to them? I am a children and adolescent psychiatrist, and I speak Arabic. That’s when I said, “Okay, it’s time to make a switch”. We need to provide psycho-social treatment.

I was there, I saw the cruelty and suffering, I realized that there was no one who really understood them, understood their language. that child -- lying in bed after being rescued at sea, having lost his parents and having no one to speak to, to tell him where he is and what is happening with him or where his parents are. A child lying in bed as if he were dead, who has unplugged his soul from his body, in order to survive.

Many people can provide emergency medical aid, but we can give something else: we can reconnect the body and the soul, we can support and embrace. We decided to be a safe place for them. that we would be the ones who see them, who ask them how they feel, who call out for their soul to come back.

Tell me about your conversations with the refugees. What did you hear from them?

They are desperate. Paranoid. You come to lend a helping hand and they do not trust you, even after having saved their own life. They are angry and care little for politics. What they do understand is that everyone around them is profiting from their demise. They want to die. They are willing to go out on a boat, even when the sea is dangerous. Because as far as they are concerned, they were given a gift - the ability to pay 2000 Euros and receive a solution – life or death. These people have lost everything. Many of them have also spent a long time in Turkey, sometimes years, hoping to return home, and now, they have come to realize that there is no place for them to return to. That it is no longer an option. They speak of months of hunger, siege, being persecuted by ISIS, assassinations. Some have been killed or seriously wounded, trying to flee, because it’s forbidden to try and flee ISIS held zones.

Those who managed to escape, belong to the upper middle class.

Yes. People were university lecturers, doctors, authors. They all had one thing in common – they lost the game, and all they have left is following what seems like hope, in the hope that it is real. Of course on the way they paid a hefty price. These people were exploited on every step of the way– raped, robbed, beaten and kidnapped. You can hardly find someone who hasn’t been exploited. That is why they are all paranoid and terrified. Still they have not forgotten their place of origin.

There was, for example, this old man who arrived on a boat. He was an amputee, lost a leg from a mine. I said to him “come on, for heaven’s sake, get on my back I’ll carry you” the place was rocky and we had some climbing to do.

He just wouldn’t do it. I finally convinced him, or rather I forced him. He then whispered in my ear “I must tell you something son, this lost foot, just so you know, was on the gas pedal of a Mercedes Benz S 600 in Homs – when I’d put it down people would fly sideways. Don’t think this man on your back is nothing".

There was also this very wealthy guy. He arrived with his family, his daughters al dressed up like princesses, all aristocratic and everything. He took quite a bit of money with him. Some four hundred thousand dollars apparently and someone snitched on him. They took his money. He arrived on the beach with nothing. Not enough to even continue the journey. He simply collapsed and had no idea what to do next. Many people like him simply go unnoticed, because they continue their journey without treating their crisis, their grief, their pain.

They survived, but can they go on living and rebuild a life?

Think about it, a refugee who is in crisis, depressed and cannot function, is also an agitated violent and desperate person. He is unable to contribute to or integrate in the host country. Quite the opposite, he is a burden. People in this situation need to get some recourse, but there is none provided. There is no one who can go and tell the German authorities today, for example, that from the fifty odd thousand refugees that they have recently received, they ought to watch out some particular individual, who had lost both his children, say. He will probably have a serious break down at some point. He can be dangerous and not only to himself. He is easy prey for radicalization. These people have gone through such major traumas. They cannot even speak. They will not speak of the lost home or the children that have perished. They will speak of food.

There is no importance for the story. It has no place.

None whatsoever. Its all about survival; Food, clean clothing, things that will help them regain basic dignity. Because they are almost non-existent. You cannot speak of what you had gone through if you don’t exist.

We see the images of refugees climbing off boats and we think the story is over – but its really only just begun.

On the one hand the worst part is behind them. On the other, their journey is not even close to it’s finishing line. After everything they have endured, they are still just at the beginning of their journey.

They need to get from Lesbos to Athens, then from Athens to take a bus to the border and from there on to Macedonia and beyond. They have to plan this journey on their own, without any money. Think of a woman who is 22, with three little children, who has hardly left the confines of her own neighbourhood until this journey. She has gone through four years of war and other nightmares, and now she needs to head this operation, navigate routes, collect information on open and closed borders, in minus 20 degrees in Macedonia. and go on despite all the people who are trying to exploit her situation, rob her, lie to her – what are her chances?

How does Greece figure in this story?

Greece, from this perspective, is a crucial phase of the journey. Until they arrive to Greece it’s a do-or-die attitude, but once they arrive, the adrenaline driven tension plummets and you witness a complete collapse. When you are in such a state you retreat to the most basic needs. A boy who wants his mother, his home. You will not hear from him stories about his journey. A woman who had a caesarean two days earlier, in a Turkish clinic, and her wound is infected and she is filthy, and the volunteers take her to the hotel, wash her, disinfect her wound, she really comes back to life, but she will not speak. The Syrians are very dignified. They really value self-respect and pride. it Is very hard for them to receive charity. they do not like it at all.

Of all the people you met, was there anyone in particular you

One evening I was alone on a cliff, around four in the morning. Suddenly I heard screams. I alerted the Spanish coast guards and went down to the beach. It was dark, and it was really not much of a beach, only rocks. I had a head torch, couldn’t see a thing. I started grabbing children and swinging them ashore onto the rocks. I thought they were better off injured than drowned. As this was going on another boat arrived out of nowhere behind them and boom – they capsized.

So you are on your own with two boats now.

Yes. I lost the sense of time. I began trying to calm everyone down. When that didn’t work I started shouting. Later, on the beach, I asked each one to check if their family members were with them or missing. They said everyone was there. I divided them all into groups and we started walking. After a few seconds someone told me, hang on, grandma can’t walk any further. I take a look at her and I see a genuinely old lady. I asked her – how old are you? She replied 89. The first thing that came out of my mouth, and I’m really ashamed about this, was “what are you doing here?” and she mockingly snapped back, “I must be on holiday”. She was with her son, he was in a bad condition, confused, he kept walking back into the water. She was all wet, I think her clothes alone must have weighed about 60 pounds. She had no shoes. I already gave my own shoes to some other lady. There are about 60-70 people who need to move ahead and the waves are hitting us and there are children and some hypothermia cases, and I just had to make a choice. I said to her “stay here, I will be back for you”. She didn’t quite believe me. She said “don’t make false promises”. I walked away with a heavy heart. I knew she had very little chance of getting through this. One big wave and its over.

In the meantime the Spaniards arrives and took control over the situation. A Spanish guy and I found a boat, we took an engine from a different boat and headed back to where I left the old lady. It took us a long while to get there and I didn’t really believe she would still be there. But she was there. Sitting on a rock, being washed by the waves, but she was there, waiting. We pulled her into our boat. On the way she still asked me “what should I tell them in registration? That I am Syrian? I said, “yes of course”. So she said “the problem is that I am not really Syrian. My passport is not Syrian”. So I replied “Listen, if you lie, they will send you back to your home country”. And so then she goes “Great, then I will lie, and they can return me to my home town of Safad”

She was born in Tzfat? (Safad was a Palestinian town in the Galilee when most of its Arab resident fled in 1948. Today it is an Israeli Town called Tzfat.)

Yes. So then she tells me “that’s it, enough, this is the last time I am a refugee. In 1948 I went to Sabra and Shatila, from there I went to the Yarmuk refugee Camp, near Damascus. Two years ago they took us out of Deraa, to a camp near Istanbul and now I am here. That’s it, next time I’m a refugee with God.”

I can see why you had thought of her of all people. Identity issues.

True. I suddenly saw the story of my nation. It could have been me. I was born in Kifer Yassif, She was born in Safad, its all coincidence. She could have been my own grandmother.

Do you feel that their story is also your story?

My story, my family’s story, the story of my own people. I feel that we, in the organization, as a Palestinian minority, are transforming the occupation. We are translating the suffering and hope and open historical wounds into something different. Into an positive position. We are leaving behind the passive, needy position that asks for the other’s help.

Turning weakness into strength.

Precisely. I can now take all my difficulties, and all my pain, and everything I have learnt, because you do learn from pain and from racism, and you do learn from abuse and from discrimination – and I can give something to somebody. It is strength in that sense. It is beyond simply speaking the same language and sharing the same culture. You know, when I decided to travel to Lesbos, I did it also because the situation in the country [Israel] was difficult. There was terror and violence and an atmosphere of incitement. For the first time in my life I felt real fear. A fear of walking in the street or going out.
I drive home after my hospital shift, sometimes after 26 hours without sleep. Maybe the police will stop me, maybe I will make a wrong turn with my car, and I am not exactly blond with blue eyes, and the police are on edge with finger on the trigger, people were being taken off buses and taxis and were being beaten and killed. It was all too suffocating and I simply couldn’t function as I needed to. So I had this thought, that if I could contribute, give of myself, maybe through other people’s woes I will forget my own.

Seems like you have learnt quite a lot about life in the past few months.

This crisis has actually revealed to me the cruelty of the world we live in. Our own cruelty. I question whether standing on the Greek side, helping people who were exploited on the Turkish side, does a whole lot of good. Because in my daily life I buy Apple and Samsung products, knowing full well that they exploit people and lead to deaths in factories and sweatshops. I live in a country that itself does quite a lot of evil to other populations. So in my day-to-day life I’m on the Turkish side.

Figuratively speaking.

Yes. You get a real mirror image of yourself between these two shorelines. You tell yourself, wow, I’m pretty disgusting but it’s pretty amazing here as well. Out of all the death and suffering, you begin to see some good as well.

Where does the good come from?

From humanity. The humanity that you get from the refugees. Their gratitude, even when you do very little, just take them off a boat and greet them or give a hug. To be surrounded by good people, who have left everything behind and came to volunteer. People who cry when disaster strikes and are happy when things go well. You begin to enjoy this illusion. It’s like humanity’s paradise. Everyone is good. You don’t have to worry about your looks. You forget about your Facebook,

WhatsApp, wars, money. For the first time in many years I managed to untangle myself from the teeth I had sunk into my back, capitalism, my mortgage, work, the daily struggle over who I am and what I am, to prove myself, worry about things. Here I was in a place where I was simply seen as nothing but a human being.

Well, it’s a no-man’s land in that sense, a kind of utopian society where everyone is altruistic and free from the absurdities of life.

It is. And there are then all the things that come from the outside world, you start looking at them differently. You see the abhorrent things. You begin to get closer to yourself. You probably need 30 years of psychological treatment to reach the level of depth you reach out there. One of the volunteers once told me, that this experience opens hidden drawers in your soul that you didn’t know exist. When you return home you need to deal with it, start asking yourself questions.

What kind of questions do you ask yourself?

I am a physician. My parents taught me to give. I told myself that this profession is a calling. But is it really what we do? Is the medical profession in Israel, or the rest of the world for that matter, really like that? I can’t treat anyone who has no medical insurance. And if you have insurance your queue is shorter and if you are privately insured I will give you a bigger hug and see you for an hour, but if you come from a public clinic I will wave you out in 10 minutes. You then start to understand that this is not medicine, whatever you want to call what I do on a daily basis in Israel. Medicine is what I did on the Greek Islands.

You have emerged out of the cave.

Yes. But the rift is sad and painful, because that is what medicine ought to be about. But it’s not applicable. I came back but had no way of applying any of it. I then had an inner struggle over how to maintain myself now, how to protect what I felt there.

Yes, I was wondering how odd it must be to return to normal life after such an experience. it's like all meanings are recalibrated.

Right. It was there that I began to understand what happiness was or what sadness was. I am naturally someone who is a bit low most of the time, so I thought I knew what sadness meant. What happened to me there, which seemed to be on the verge of psychosis, was that I would laugh and cry at the same time, because when I felt sad I was truly sad and when I was happy I was completely happy. I knew it was the real thing. That what I had felt before was not real sadness. It’s as if someone would come and tell you “here, come and take what you were looking for. It’s the truth. It’s your opportunity. For years you have been paying for psychological treatments and searching for yourself, and here before you lies the truth. It’s a bargain. You can fulfill your mission, save lives, be connected to your feelings and really be of help to people. And you abandon all of this for a few thousand shekels, because you are afraid of losing your flat?” And then you really start to hate yourself.

Because you see the strings that you are attached to.

Yes, I came back because of my narcissistic and capitalistic needs. The fear of my mortgage. The fear of losing my job. But I keep thinking of how to protect my own truth.

And what truth is that? The interaction of two people – the one who needs help and the one who gives it, without any barriers?

That’s right. I had that in Greece after 24 hours. When the Afghan kid and the Syrian Kid were but the same one to me. had I come only to help syrians?. You see everyone’s suffering and you attach yourself to them all, and to your own pain inside. You understand that barriers are only a political thing, that it’s all a game, and if you are a human being then you ought to behave like one. The refugees did for me far more than I have for them. They gave me the opportunity to regain my humanity, they opened my eyes. I was ashamed of my dream to buy an SUV, of shelling out so much money to refurbish my flat, even though it is a modest place in a simple neighborhood. Why was I selling myself to all this? It’s a lesson for life, that has came to teach and show me a way to come out of it and make a real change, as a man. Apart from this confrontation I have to confront everything that was there. Death, suffering, cruelty.

And having to deal also with the trauma.

Yes. With bodies of children. You cry for them, because they are no different from the Kurdish boy who drowned and got publicized the world over. He was not the only one. On one certain day I saw four children, and there were many more. The dead children I saw did not make it to the newspaper. No one saw them.

I am so sorry.

I remember a 12 year old girl, can’t say why her in particular. She lay on the beach, under a tree. Dressed up in pretty clothes wearing the fake life vest the smugglers gave out. The weather was good; the sun was shining on her face.

She seemed alive, but she was dead. I looked at her and didn’t know what to do. As in, who are you? Where are your parents? What happened to you? I wanted someone to come and take photos of her. I never took or published such photos, but in her case I wanted her photographed, I wanted her seen, her story told. Maybe they could find her parents? Maybe a relative can identify her and she can be buried in Syria? I took her to my car, and It drove me utterly crazy that I did not know what would become of her. This child has a name, she had a future. Nowit simply tore me apart. She is with me all the time. It is something I have to live with. Why wasn’t I there when her boat drowned? Why didn’t I have enough equipment? The guilt is really eating me on the inside. It takes away a piece every day.

The guilt. It is impossible to help everybody, but it’s certainly hard to accept it.

The thing is, you begin to think differently about your own personal responsibility.

It seems to me that the term you are looking for is rather mutual-responsibility.

Yes, because it exists there. At work I watched people die at hospital, people I couldn’t save as a doctor. But there was a mutual responsibility of some sort - other surgeons, the ward, the senior surgeon, the entire public sector. And suddenly you realize that this collective responsibility has an entirely opposite purpose. It is there to numb the mistakes and torts we commit so that we can live with death. If we were a real group, we would probably have to bang our heads in the wall for two or three weeks – “how could this person die in our own hands?!“. That’s what I felt there. Every death made me feel this way. In spite of seemingly having less responsibility.

Because of the situation? Because of the many mitigating factors?

Yes, because we had no equipment, I didn’t have 20 people around me to support me, it’s not like a missed something on a CT scan, it’s not like I asked for the wrong type of test. A dead body simply washed in from sea. So why was I taking the responsibility? Because I am human being and this is a human being. that's all.

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