More Than Dentistry

Dr. J. Alexander Kussad shares his story of caring for refugees


International Medical Relief, a Colorado-based organization, organized a humanitarian mission to the Aegean island of Lesbos. Its core mission is community outreach and education, especially in the developing nations.

So this trip was unique, in that they were operating in a European country, and instead of reaching out to settled villagers, I was part of a group of volunteers reaching out to refugees and migrants—people on the move who are only in a given location for a day or two. We were operating under the umbrella of the Health Point Project, a United Kingdom-based medical charity organization.

Greece Government Slows Refugee Assistance
Upon our arrival to Greece, the local government decided to expel NGOs (non-governmental organizations) from operations, and it became illegal to provide any type of assistance to refugees including giving them food or physical assistance. The exception was with Doctors Without Borders that operated often with one physician during daylight hours at Moria detention center, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that mainly provided transportation bus services from the beaches to Moria detention center for documentation processing of the refugees.

Helping People Disembark from Rafts
Our group lost valuable days because of the government regulation, but during this time, I registered as a dentist on the island. We spent our days on the beach, at a camp established by a Swedish NGO called Lighthouse Refugee Relief. Alongside the Greek coast guard and an organization of Spanish lifeguards from Barcelona, we helped people disembark the inflatable rafts used to cross the strait between Lesbos and Turkey.

Clothes, Blankets, Food
& Urgent Care
At the Lighthouse camp, I provided translating services (Levantine Arabic for the Syrians and Persian for the Afghans), and our group provided the refugees with a change of clothes, warming tents and blankets, hot tea, soup and other food. There was also a clinic set up in a small trailer where we removed a cast from the broken leg of a Syrian boy (he was hit by a car two months prior in Turkey) and saw other urgent care cases.

One night we heard commotion outside of the house where we were staying next to a beach and a large raft of about 50 Afghan refugees (men, women and children) landed on the shore next to the house.

The people were wet and hypothermic, so we quickly ushered them into the house, offered them some of our clothes, and gave them whatever food and hot drinks we had. We called International Rescue Committee that had a nearby camp and fleet of vans to come pick up the people and transport them to their camp, where UNHCR buses could then take them to Moria.

Covert Trips into Guarded Former Prison
Moria is a former prison, heavily guarded by armed police and surrounded by barbed wire fences. By breaking off into small groups of two to three and operating in the middle of the night, we were able to sneak in multiple times, whether crawling under fences, or past a sleepy guard while his back was turned. We often pretended to be refugees by taking off our scrubs and the women in the group put on headscarves.

Treating Patients in Secret
Finally, there was a negotiation between the government and Health Point Project and we were allowed to return to the medical tent outside the walls of Moria in an area nicknamed “Afghan Hill.” The agreement allowed us to provide diagnosing and consultation services, but nothing more. As healthcare providers, we decided that the humanitarian necessity of medical treatment superseded government laws, so we treated patients and spread the word of our existence among the refugees.

Caring for the Sick
My sub-team consisted of me, a physician from Utah and a nurse from Washington. Once we entered, we asked where families and children were located since we gave them priority. They were inside bunkers, which we entered, and introduced ourselves. We soon found ourselves inundated with many children with coughs, sore throats, fevers, runny noses, and some adolescents and adults with toothaches, muscle fatigue, starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia. We spent hours performing exams and dispensing vitamins, rehydration salts, antibiotics, cough lozenges, pain relievers and acetaminophen.

Those with toothaches, I escorted back to the tent on Afghan Hill, where a previous dentist from the UK set up a makeshift dental operatory, where I could perform extractions and dispense medications. By the time we built momentum, patients started coming to see us in the tent rather than us having to sneak into Moria to see patients. I translated as often as I could for the physicians and nurses, and in addition to extractions and draining abscesses, I was able to distribute toothbrushes and toothpaste, apply fluoride varnish, and offer oral hygiene instructions. Before I knew it, it was time to return to the USA.

When All is Lost
The Syrian and Afghan refugees were obviously fleeing war zones and had lost loved ones and worldly possessions, whereas migrants were “piggy-backing” off of the refugee situation and came from countries such as Morocco (they flew to Turkey as tourists), Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh. Afghans were reported being on the road, often walking with toddlers, for almost a month and crossing the rugged, snowy mountains of Kurdistan on the Iran-Turkey border.

Syrians lost relatives and real estate and were the most panicked and emotional of the groups we encountered. The European Union is granting residency status to Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, while most everyone else is being turned away or deported at the Greece-Macedonia border. Once they enter Macedonia, their journey is not even halfway finished. They still need to traverse the Balkans before they arrive at their destination, the most popular one being Germany. Along the way, it is reported by Hurriyet Daily News of Turkey that as many as 10,000 migrant children have become separated from their families and are victims of human trafficking.

A Positive Change for People in Crisis
I wish I could have stayed longer and I feel I have not done enough—that what I’ve done is a drop in the bucket. But I realize that small drop may have been enough to make a positive change in the lives of a few individuals, and I’m convincing myself that makes it worthwhile.

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