The Abandoned Building

The abandoned building… that’s what we all call it.

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This is a building in the centre of Thessaloniki.  It, along with others, is a partially built and disused building that offers some shelter to hundreds of homeless refugees.

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The majority of refugees living here do not have papers and they are unable to travel in Europe or seek asylum without them.  Although some want papers, EU law states that any refugees seeking asylum, must do so in the first country they reach.  Obviously for many refugees who want to travel further or have families in other European countries, they want to get as far as possible towards their destination before claiming asylum.

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However, for some of the refugees hoping to stay in Greece it can still be difficult to get papers.  In extreme but not infrequent incidences refugees have turned up at the police station and asked to be arrested.  Once arrested, the police have to issue a police paper that the refugees have to activate within a two week window, by undertaking a skype interview.

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The building has been frequently used since 2015 and the peak of the refugee crisis.  The police are aware the building is in use and will occasionally review the situation.  Last October, 2017, the police emptied the building and arrested many of the men before sealing it off.  However over the course of a year it has been frequented by many passing through on their way to mainland Europe and has once again become home to over 100 refugees who have nowhere else to sleep.

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Last week the police came again to the building.  They arrived early on the Friday morning and arrested everybody in the building.  Anything on the ground floor was removed, including any possessions and sleeping equipment.

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Most of the refugees have now been released.  Any that decided not move on and weren’t detained have returned to the building.  On leaving the police station, they state that their possessions were not returned to them, which I believe to be a violation of refugees rights.  They now have no belongings and although most of them did not have much to sleep with in the first place, they now have nothing.

Winter is coming, the nights are getting colder and darker and as volunteers we are now trying everything we can to get them essential sleeping bags and blankets.

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We visited the building the day after the raid.  After our clinic finished on Saturday, we went with the boys and took a list of names of anybody who had their things taken.

On Monday we managed to gather some blankets from another organisation in order to distribute them to those who now have nothing to sleep with.

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We returned at night, after the evening clinic to distribute the blankets with the least attention.  If word had gotten out that we were distributing sleeping goods, many others would have come from the city but we only had enough to give to the few whose names we had taken.

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After packaging up the blankets outside our apartment, we arrived to the car park around 11.30pm; scaring away some of the local prostitutes who frequent the car park when we are not there.  With the help of our translator we rounded up anyone in the building who needed blankets and brought them to the car park.

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It took over an hour to distribute 60 blankets.

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We finished our work at 01.30am and returned home.  Although predominantly our work in Thessaloniki is medical, we also work closely with various voluntary organisations.  We have regular street team meetings to ensure we are all aware of what is happening at ground level in Thessasloniki and with other charitable organisations in Northern Greece.  These links ensure when incidences like this happen we can help as much as possible and try to support the refugees during these difficult times.

For anyone who wants to support this work, please visit my just giving page.

Arriving in Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is Greece’s second biggest city and for the next few months I will be based in Diavata, a small town about 10km from the city.  I am working as part of a medical organisation that offers medical care to refugees.  Our two main bases of operation are within a camp a short walk from Diavata and in a car park, about a 5 minute walk from the train station in Thessaloniki.

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Thessaloniki Port

In truth I did not know much about the city until my arrival, other than its location in relation to the recent migration route across Europe.  However, I’m really glad my work has brought me here.  Thessaloniki itself is a beautiful port city, founded in 315 BC and steeped in history.  It is the capital of Greek Macedonia, named after the half-sister of Alexander the great and has been ruled by the Kingdom of Macedonia, Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire and even fell under Nazi rule during the Second World War.  As a result of its history there are an impressive 15 monuments in the city that make UNESCO World Heritage Status.

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Agia Sofia, Thessaloniki

I’ve briefly spent some time in the city centre but as our main places of work are just to the west of the city we don’t often venture into town.  Hopefully I’ll be able to explore more of the city during my stay but Diavata has everything we need, including an amazing market outside our flat on Wednesday mornings, where you can get the most incredible fresh fruit and vegetables!

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Diavata Market – aka 5am wake-up call!

Since my arrival my work has been split between working in the camp at Diavata and the car park clinic.  I am the only physiotherapist working with the organisation and the first fortnight has been used to establish a client base and routine; my usual week will be Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the camp and Tuesday, Thursday and occasional Saturday in the car park.

I tried last week to try and attend all three clinics in a day but not only do they overlap, so it makes you late for the afternoon clinic but it also makes it over a 12 hour day, which is just not functional when it’s as busy as it is!  Instead, I’ll be using the time between clinics to take over the role of coordinator for the Thessaloniki project.

 

THE CAMP

The camp operates a morning clinic during the weekdays for registered refugees and we work alongside a Greek organisation PHILOS, funded by the European Commission.  At the minute it is estimated there are around 2000 in the camp 700 registered and 1300 unregistered refugees.  Predominantly my work will be in the camp as the majority of the residents are considered more ‘vulnerable’, for example, women, children, families and people with disabilities.  Although PHILOS provide medical care, the residents of the camp do not have any other access to a physiotherapist.  The benefit to my working in the camp is that a large majority of my patients have been female, which means I am able to treat them in privacy, without too many cultural barriers.

At the end of my first week we managed to negotiate a static caravan for me to use belonging to UNHCR (the UN charity for refugees).  This has enabled me to have my own working space and means I can arrange to see people who need ongoing input regularly, on the days I am in the camp, as well as seeing any day attendances the doctors want me to review.

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My work space before…

The facilities although fairly basic are more than adequate.  I have taken a camp bed from our warehouse to use as a plinth to assess and treat patients and have managed to gather a collection of different items to use including towels and creams.

Predominantly the conditions I see in the camp are muscular in nature, often complaints of lower back, neck or shoulder pain although I have also splinted broken fingers before they get referred to hospital.  As mentioned earlier, the camp hosts some of the more vulnerable patients and I have been regularly seeing a gentleman with a spinal cord injury for neurological rehabilitation (A).

I met A on my first day and may have been slightly biased towards him, as not only are he and his mother the sweetest people you could hope to meet (despite a lack of English, we communicate mainly via google translate – it’s a life saver!) but also, when I met him for the first time he was sat up in bed wearing a Leeds Beckett University T-Shirt!  It was one he was given on arrival in camp but I couldn’t stop smiling.  Only I would come to Greece and have my first patient wearing a top from Leeds!

 

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My work space after 🙂

 

THE CAR PARK

Unlike the camp, the majority of the refugees that attend the car park clinic in the afternoons and evenings are unregistered and generally male, often between late teens and early twenties.  More often than not, they live around the city centre in abandoned buildings and squats which is why we base our work here.  Between the car park and the train station there is at least one abandoned building currently housing 50 refugees.

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Between clinics: football in the car park

Logistically it is a little harder for me to work in the car park as we work out of an old ambulance, however in the recent days we have established more of a routine to get physio incorporated.  We aim to have at least one volunteer doctor at a time who operates within the ambulance (accessed via the sliding door) and a wound station set up outside the ambulance for other medical professionals e.g. nurses/ paramedics/ students to attend to wound dressings.

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Too eager to wait their turn…

The most common problem is infected wounds from mosquito bites but scabies is also common and we provide treatment and fresh clothes to everyone who requires it.  Any minor ailments can be treated in the ambulance but for more serious conditions that arise, for example, an epileptic with poorly controlled seizures, we can refer into the Greek healthcare system or take more urgent cases to hospital ourselves.

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Blisters are common from excessive walking to reach Greece

In recent days as more people are requiring physiotherapy I have set up a station operating out of the back of the ambulance to treat general musculoskeletal injuries for either upper limb or lower limb.  If more privacy is needed I try and jump into the ambulance between medical patients and this seems to be working at the minute.

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Our operations unit!

We operate the system using separate numbers for the doctors (1) and the wound station (W1) but with the recent increasing number of patients for physio, I now have my own number system (D1).

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Strapping a sprained ankle at the afternoon clinic

Although we run both an afternoon and evening clinic with a short break, the evening clinic is far more popular as another organisation works alongside us in the car park to offer food distribution.  The car park regularly gets the same refugees attending until they decide to move on which means that anyone with longer term needs has been coming back on the days I am there for further treatment as well as getting food and their wounds dressed at the same time.  Just last night a gentleman returned to the clinic to say that his knee pain was completely better.

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The end of evening clinic

At times there can be a more intense atmosphere in the car park compared to the camp as often the refugees are from different countries, with their own individual tensions and any system that involves queuing for food, when they normally have minimal access to food and water, is likely to have its problems.  During an evening on my first week someone got glassed in the head with a bottle and needed suturing and the week before I arrived someone was stabbed in the ambulance itself, trying to get away from another man.

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Suturing in the ambulance

However, this is rare and hasn’t happened until now.  With the end of summer and the nights soon to get darker we have brought the evening clinic forwards to finish at 9pm instead of 10pm and are trying to not run over.  Despite the odd difficulty the work is good and between clinics we often stay around or return early to play football or vollyball with some of the guys.  After clinic last Thursday when everyone had gone a few refugees remained and we played some Arabic music and all tried our best dance moves – mine were less than average but scored 10/10 for enthusiasm.

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Trying to get rid of hiccups – works every time!

Over the next few weeks I’ll try and share a few more specific stories, photos and hopefully introduce you to some of the people I meet along the way 🙂