Have you ever had someone ignore you because of your background? Have you ever had someone look at you with disdain because of who you are? Have you ever been treated with total disrespect because of where you come from?
I haven’t had much experience with racism. I grew up in a multicultural community. My classes were made up of children from Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, and even the UK. When we were asked our nationality in school most of us replied where our grandparent’s heritage originated. I said I was mostly Norwegian and a little Scottish. To my fellow students and myself, being Canadian meant everyone from every background, who happened to live in Canada.
I was so naïve that I didn’t discover prejudice still existed until I was married with children and watched a protest happening in the southern states on the news. I honestly thought prejudice was history. The closest I could relate was by experiencing gender issues in the workplace. My boss had a habit of introducing me as his secretary even though I repeatedly asked him if he had ever once seen me answer the phone. I was never on the receiving end, or personally witnessed, outright prejudice until recently.
When I was in Turkey I was in a crowded elevator and this lady started talking to me in another language I said sorry English only. And then she started a tirade yelling up one side of me and down the other. She was increasingly upset and boy, she really didn’t like me. I couldn’t understand her except the one word that was mentioned a few times with absolute hatred, “Americano.” The elevator stopped and the others all looked at me apologetically. I wanted to say I am Canadian but looked down at my shirt and noticed I was wearing an American logo. Anyways, the whole thing was not a nice feeling. In my white privileged world, this is the worst I had faced.
My dad was dealt a rough hand with some ageism.
My dad was in the emergency room very ill. He was bleeding internally and was extremely cold. He asked every nurse that came by for a blanket. It was busy. A blanket never came. He kept asking, suffering and waiting. Then one nurse came by and he asked again. She said yes like all the others and was about to rush away when she stopped, turned and looked straight into his eyes. And in that moment, it dawned on her that this was a fellow human suffering. She left and returned promptly with a warm blanket and she took the time to tuck it around him. She had looked in his eyes, saw his pain and felt empathy.
One just has to look into the eyes of the refugees to know they have a story to tell. They are fellow human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. One night when I was volunteering in Athens, Maggie (my dear friend and fellow volunteer) and I found a handicapped teenager sleeping on the step of a doorway to a closed shop. We had seen him earlier; we had fed him up at the square where Maggie had set up the Omonia Supper Club for refugees sleeping rough or just hungry. When we realized that he had no shelter we brought him to a hotel where we temporarily housed refugees until we could find them a permanent solution.
His name was Harsh and he was from Kurdistan. He was living in a refugee camp in Iraq that was bombed out and he decided to head for Europe. He showed me his personal videos of the smouldering refugee camp on his phone. Harsh was so underweight by the time I met him. At home, we would have mistaken him for a homeless drug addict. Harsh wore a leg brace and crutches. The brace was damaged and his kneepad was crudely made and his crutches had seen better days. He had difficulty walking without it causing great pain.
I wanted to have the brace replaced or to at least find a fix for his kneepad. I went to the orthopaedic shops and found out that he would need a referral from a doctor, which would be impossible to do before I left Greece. I found a large orthopaedic supply store and talked to an employee. I showed her pictures of what I needed and she said to bring him in the next day and she would fit him for a knee brace.
The employee who was so helpful the day before was disgusted by Harsh. She did not want to help us at all. I motioned for him to sit in the chair and lift his pants so she could see his leg. I pleaded with her to help. She went to get the different braces we discussed the day before and handed them to me, stood far back and said, “I will not touch him, I will tell you how to do it.” It was difficult and frustrating but Harsh and I managed to try out three types and by the fourth, the employee’s tone was kinder and she started to help, now treating him more like a fellow human being.
None of the options were suitable and we discussed possible solutions. His knee had no support and he was using a damaged and worn attachment to hold some old folded cloth in place over his knee. This was made with a leather piece with four buckles that attached to the metal braces that ran along his leg. The straps and buckles were broken so he had them tied with shoelaces. Until he could have a prescription for a proper replacement brace we decided a remake of his homemade attachment was best. She wrote down the addresses of a few shoemakers who surely could construct one as it was crafted out of leather and buckles.
We went to four different shoemakers who all said no they would not construct it. With each stop we met a rude shoemaker, upset that I brought a refugee into their shop. Harsh would lift up his pant leg and I would explain what I wanted done and after each rude refusal I said, “Are you not a craftsman? Do you not consider yourself an artist? Are you not proud of your work? “
All I managed to do for Harsh was get him a good set of crutches that wouldn’t hurt under his arms and some padding for his knee. We purchased them back at the orthopaedic supply store where the employee who after spending some time with him was much nicer and she helped with sizing. And we bought one of the cheaper kneepads after all, although it really wasn’t suitable.
After inflicting a day of prejudiced people upon Harsh I felt horrible. He may not have understood a word of what everyone said but he surely felt it. I gave him some cash and a sympathetic smile hoping to convey my apologies for all the people who thought he was just a dirty refugee.
I think our hearts have somehow gotten cold. Maybe seeing things on the news have hardened us. Are we so busy we cannot take the time to see others as valuable human beings and empathize?
I am not a saint. I am just as guilty. I almost brushed aside someone in dire need.
As always happens when we are helping one family, we would get approached by others telling us their problems. Issues like how they have been trying to register or get aid for their family. I had just finished delivering aid and a man approached me and started telling me how this one family had a problem. The man standing behind him was worried about his son’s health and that they had been everywhere trying to get help. I was busy and a little tired of requests. I was ready to go home for the day and didn’t think I had it in me to deal with another case. I did not give him my full attention. I quickly said, “Try Praksis again, keep trying, don’t give up.” I avoided looking at the father and was preparing to leave. The father handed me a piece of paper, it was from MSF and it was in English. I quickly scanned it, looked up into his very sad eyes and said, “And you have taken this with you to everyone?”
We sat down and the translator, a fellow refugee, explained how the family was previously up at the Greece/Macedonian border at the Idomeni camp and that is where they saw the MSF doctors. They were supposed to bring the boy back to MSF the following day but that was unfortunately when the Idomeni camp was bulldozed. The family managed to get back to Athens hoping they would be able to find help for their son. The translator, who was also returning from Idomeni with his family, accompanied the family to four hospitals, various medical clinics, Praksis and the UNHCR. At each they were turned away. Even after they provided the MSF report. One hospital said they were sorry but they had no doctors. In hindsight, I think they meant you must go to a different hospital where there is a cardiologist present.
The father explained (through the translator) how helpless he felt, like he is watching his son die and unable to get anyone to help him. He said his son woke up the previous night and asked to go outside for air and said please take me to the hospital. He didn’t, he just held his son while feeling hopeless because he knew they would be turned away again. I made a promise to take them to a hospital the next day.
I returned to my room for the night and went online to the volunteer groups and asked for advice. I was put in touch with a volunteer doctor and I showed him a copy of the MSF report. He said the child must see a cardiologist and explained the tests he needed. The boy had a severe heart problem that required specialized tests and he did some research and advised me on the best hospital to bring the boy to. The hospital was out of the way, outside of Athens. We had to take the metro to the end of the line and then a €20 cab ride. When we arrived at the hospital the nurses attempted to turn us away. I said this boy has a potentially severe heart problem. They told us there was no cardiologist working there and to come back another time. I insisted the boy be seen by a doctor and said we are prepared to wait here as long as it takes. I had a speech ready about all the newspapers and reporters that I would be phoning but I didn’t have to use it. They brought us to a waiting room and said we would see someone soon.
When finally brought into an examination room, two nurses and the doctor were brisk and gruff, asking, “Are they refugees?” and “Why did you have to come here?” They were downright rude. One nurse said sharply, “this boy looks fine, he has good colouring.” I handed the doctor the MSF report and pleaded, “This child has a serious problem and has been ignored by many doctors – please just check him.” Finally, the doctor pulled out her stethoscope and listened to his chest. Her attitude instantly changed, though her tone was still gruff. Now more so from embarrassment as to how long it has taken to have the boy be seen by any Greek medical staff. By this time, they had been trying to get medical care for one full month!
She said we will be admitting him to the hospital and right away got on the phone to the cardiologist.
The staff was wonderful after that. They were kind to Mohammed Ali and made him laugh. I bought some food and games for Ali and for his father who would be spending the night there with him. The next day Ali was in for many tests with the cardiologist who said he was very surprised Ali was still alive and that he hadn’t dropped dead somewhere along the journey to Greece. Ali needed open heart surgery and soon. The cardiologist said there is only one public hospital in Athens where he could do the surgery and he felt the wait would be too long. He surprised us by saying he had already contacted a charity that he is involved with and arranged for Ali to have the surgery done at a private hospital. Ali was transferred to the Mitera Pediatric Hospital where we saw another cardiologist, one who had agreed to perform the surgery for free. They ran the same tests again on Ali that he had at the other hospital but on better equipment.
We were sent home to wait for the surgery date while a lovely man from the charity (based in Brussels) worked on getting the funding for the hospital fees.
In the meantime, we had to settle the family’s housing situation. I paid for the hotel for the family and planned the next days excursion to bring the family to Praksis and to the UNHCR. Praksis receives funding specifically for shelter and food for families with medical cases. We had no luck. The UNHCR representatives said see Praksis. Praksis said you need a note from the UNHCR. EASO said put them in a camp (out of town). This became a heated argument between the rude EASO representative and myself. If Ali didn’t know the F word he knows it now as I said it a lot. I was tired and hot marching this poor family from place to place and angry. I could not believe the lack of care for these people. We even went to the UNHCR headquarters (seriously one of the most expensive looking building in Athens) and staged a small sit in after they refused to let us see anyone. Although eventually they allowed me to talk on the front desk phone to a representative in her nice high office somewhere in the guarded building who said sorry there is nothing she can do.
Dejected and sitting on the steps realizing it was getting us nowhere an idea popped into my head. I knew that one of my other families who had been approved for asylum was placed in a hotel while waiting for relocation to their new country. I thought there must be a representative at that hotel for the asylum service. It was a last-ditch effort. I contacted them for the location of the hotel and off we went. I left the family outside and went in by myself and I asked if there was a representative. They answered wearily and I explained I said I have a family outside who I have marched around town looking for answers but we have been ignored by everyone. They have a boy who needs heart surgery and we desperately need to arrange housing and transportation for them. They gave me the address and directions to head office. The family and I made another trip to the metro and headed straight there.
At the headquarters of the Greek organization, Solidarity Now, four very kind and helpful ladies sat down with us. We explained the situation and they proceeded to help the family fill out an application (ironically to be sent to the UNHCR for final approval). They said it would take up to a week to get them on the program but not to worry – they would help. They were so kind! They explained that once on the program the family would be provided an apartment and money for food and transportation. In addition, they would provide a translator and a social worker to deal with the hospital and doctors. After a long hot day marching the streets we finally felt like someone cared.
While waiting for the surgery date I spent a lot of time with Ali and his family and friends. They brought me to Parliament Park for a picnic with a delicious home cooked Kurdish dinner. We had dates playing the board game Snakes and Ladders. On Ali’s insistence, we spent a fun filled day at the beach. Of course, I asked for doctor’s approval first. We had a wonderful time. We bought beach toys and frolicked in the water all day and in the evening the children played in the park while we grownups drank Chai. In getting to know them I realized I made new friends for life and they have given me more than I can express. And, absolutely nothing beats those jumping into your arms giant squishy hugs of pure love from Ali.
Ali’s family had a good life with a nice home and a car that was all destroyed by Daesh. It wasn’t their choice to live as refugees, our governments caused this. Ali’s father has two brothers who the US Army brought safely out of Iraq to the states. I have not used any of their names as there is still family left behind in danger. These families are running from terror, they are not the terrorists. We do not need to be afraid.
No one should face the kind of prejudice Ali’s father had to. Imagine if you were turned away from hospital after hospital with your sick and dying child. What a horrible feeling that must have been! How terrible to not be able to help your child and watch as he slowly dies. We are all human, and most with good hearts. Open your mind and open your eyes to the world around you and all of the lovely people in it. Stop being so prejudiced! Develop empathy! Look them in the eyes and realize it could be you – all that separates us from them, is pure luck.
Ali had his surgery July 25th. He was in the hospital for over a week and felt quite sore for a while. Now, he is doing great. His family have settled into a home provided by Solidarity Now and have financial help for purchasing food and transportation. The family had their first interview for asylum and applied for relocation. They are waiting to hear the results. Two weeks ago, I was contacted by a Spanish NGO who works with cardiac cases – working on getting the families relocated to countries with the right kind of healthcare. They want to ensure Ali gets continuous care to monitor his condition.
I want to send my deepest gratitude to all involved in saving little Mohamed Ali. Thanks to you this delightfully charming eight-year-old boy is alive and well.
My financial sponsors, who without I would not have had the means to do so much. You truly have made a real difference.
MSF for all the great work they do, always (and with no political agenda)
Sumita Shaw who dedicates all her time helping the independent volunteers from her desk in the UK. She keeps up to date information on all resources available and keeps us volunteers in check. We would be lost without her.
Maggie Mullin and Rana Ali for running errands for and with me – exhausting but we did it. I love you both.
Dr. Bruno Goncalves for your medical expertise and direction to the best hospital. Your online help was invaluable.
Dr Sophie Rivett for making house calls and checking on Ali (and more)
Dr. Kalachauis, cardiologist, for referring Ali to the private hospital and his favourite charity
Evangelos Areteos of Brussels and the Kalangos Foundation – a sincere debt of gratitude for all your hard work saving children around the world.
Dr. Tzifo, cardiologist, for performing Ali’s surgery free of charge and with such love
Solidarity Now and the 4 amazing women who continue to care for Ali and his family along with hundreds of other vulnerable families in their care.
Faye Goldman and Tom Legge for taking over where I left off.
And an extra special thank you to the most incredible, kind and generous man, Sanger Hassan. A Kurdish refugee who while worrying about his own wife and two children peeked out of his small pup tent during a rain storm at Idomeni and saw a frozen, drenched single mother with her two babies wondering where to go. He invited them into his tent and adopted them into his family. He looked after them until she could be reunited with her husband in Germany. This is the outstanding character of the dear man who brought Ali’s family to my attention. He left his family to help Ali’s daily – going from hospital to hospital, organization-to-organization, trying his best to get them aid. He was available for every meeting and appointment to translate and continues to this day to help in any way he can.
Mohammad Ali was lucky; his was a successful outcome among thousands of vulnerable refugee children still going without emergency healthcare or aid. The public must continue to call on their governments to do more. The independent volunteers must continue to be their advocates. And with the support from people who donate to our fundraising efforts – one step at a time, we all can make a difference.
Note – It is imperative that the independent volunteer follow the refugee help groups online and ask for assistance before giving the wrong advice.
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