I sat in the conference, listening to horrific stories of a refugee crisis that had always seemed far removed from my life here. Stories of suffering and images of children and despair slid across the projection screen, and I was moved to act. The talk by Tarif Bakdash, MD, a Syrian-born physician practicing in Milwaukee, was part of a global health series with a focus on supporting refugee and recent immigrant populations. His presentation culminated with an offer: He asked his listeners if we would accompany him on a medical aid trip to al Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. I decided that I would go.
I did not know how I would be able to help but hoped that my background as a social worker in the Froedtert Hospital emergency department (ED) for over 13 years would prepare me in some way. My primary responsibilities in the ED include working with trauma victims and their families, working with law enforcement, and serving as a liaison between medical staff and patients and their families.
In Milwaukee, I have borne witness to trauma, sadness and loss, as well as hope and survival. I proceeded on my trip without expectations, knowing the trauma cases I might see could be very different. I did not anticipate the link which unites us in our human experience, and thus, the kind of care I would be called on to provide, crosses cultural and country lines.
Our group was composed of three physicians, two nurses, a youth minister and me. Every morning during our trip we met for breakfast at the hotel, initially in anticipation, then to reminisce and laugh, prior to piling into a van for the hour and a half drive to the refugee camp. When we arrived at the camp the first day, the landscape was desertous and barren. We were all surprised to see the entire refugee camp was surrounded by a chain linked fence topped with razor wire and armed Jordanian officers guarding the camp’s entrance.
Once inside camp, though, we were greeted with nothing but warmth, and we got to work. Together with the two nurses, I spent the majority of my time in the ED for women and children. There was a language barrier, but I learned a friendly smile and warm embrace spoke volumes.
Our patients were mostly overwhelmed mothers carrying heavy emotional burdens. These women had hope despite the insurmountable sadness enveloping their lives, and their eyes shown with gratitude when they received care and treatment. I was able to appreciate what our patients had gone through because of the Syrian civil conflict when I toured a home of a refugee family. Seeing how their lives had been reduced to a tiny metal box, their temporary houses, filled with only the essentials and sometimes housing as many as ten people, was heartbreaking.
I saw how little people had, and this scarcity extended to the clinics. The nurses from Wisconsin were used to changing their gloves after each patient, but in the camp, they ran out of sterile gloves after just a few patients. People in the camp became sick frequently due to living in close, hot quarters, but the children were always well cared for.
My experience working in the ED at Froedtert Hospital helped prepare me for my role in the camp even more than I had anticipated. Similar to what my patients in Milwaukee experience, there is a sense of isolation victims and survivors of trauma can experience as life goes on for everyone else around them. Letting my patients know they weren’t forgotten was one of my most important jobs.
We saw a torture victim whose teenagers were experiencing bed wetting because of what they’d been through. We provided medical care, as well as support and reassurance that what had happened to them was not okay, and it was normal to feel mad as a result. I mostly interacted with women and children, listening to their stories, and helping them cope with the stress.
Similar to the way people feel in the U.S., many patients were reluctant to discuss their feelings and emotions with people they did not know. Because our American care team provided unbiased listening ears, our patients felt free to talk and unburden themselves. The power of touch, like a hug or holding someone’s hand who was experiencing grief, was something I relied on in the camp when the language barrier prevented us from communicating through words. So many times in the hug with a patient, I could physically feel the tension leaving their bodies. Now, with my patients in Milwaukee, a hug is something I readily offer.
I wasn’t entirely sure how the people in the camp perceived us and our presence there, until I had a particular interaction with one Syrian woman. The elderly woman came up to me one day, taking my face in her weathered hands, and began kissing and hugging me. I couldn’t understand what she was saying in Arabic, but an interpreter said “she wants to take a photograph with you,” which was a big deal because in our experience most of the women didn’t want to be photographed.
I met such beautiful people through the entire experience, from my travel companions, people in my local community who supported me going on the trip, new Jordanian friends and the Syrian refugees. I would certainly encourage people living in the U.S. to consider ways they might be able to assist refugees or other marginalized people. For those with clinical backgrounds, volunteering in free clinics in Milwaukee or seeking opportunities to go on mission trips, locally or overseas, is something I encourage people to consider. If you can’t go somewhere yourself, donating to organizations like the Syrian American Medical Society and supporting others going on trips are other good ways to help.
The journey to Jordan was an amazing opportunity that left me with a new sense of the importance of human touch, and knowing that conflicts halfway around the world are really not so far away from us at all.