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My fourth visit to Lesvos to give acupuncture to refugees

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

Original article published by Sandra Arbelaez

EM's container inside Lesvos refugee camp - Photo by Thomas Rajten

I have just come back from a two week visit to Lesvos, where I was giving acupuncture to refugees living in the island hosted by the wonderful Earth Medicine project.

I arrived in the capital Mytilene early on Sunday 13th of November after travelling all night and had the whole day to rest and prepare for the week to come. I was given an update on the changes that had happened since my last visit in July this year. The most important change was that Earth Medicine obtained permission to work from within the camp so I was to spend my two weeks working from their container located inside the refugee camp.

Our days started early, we would usually get to the Earth Medicine house in Mytilene at 8am, have a quick breakfast and from there we would go together to the camp. When I say “we” I mean Sabine, a homeopath from Germany, Sohrab -Earth Medicine’s worker who, amongst other things, drives, translates from the different Afghan languages into English, fixes what needs fixing and buys fresh bread for breakfast-, sometimes Fabiola -Earth Medicine’s founder and director-, and me. Behind the scenes, we had Malvina who works at the office and gets all the administrative things sorted for all of us; and Ali who was cooking food that he would lovingly serve for us when we came back from the camp.

The Earth Medicine container in the camp is beautifully decorated and has been divided into three separate sections. I had use of two of these and the other one served as reception/consultation space for homeopathy. Although I had visited the camp several times in my previous trips, working from there proved to be a very different experience. In contrast with working in the office, where people were brought in the van in groups and we would have 4 or 5 people to treat every hour, here the more limited space meant fewer treatments. However, as 95% of those who came for treatment were newly arrived in the camp, they often required a lot more time and effort from us. We had a constant flow of people who had made appointments for acupuncture since before my arrival, and others who just turned up to ask for help. The main challenge we had was the lack of interpreters. We lacked someone to help us with Somali language, and sometimes also a female interpreter to help us with the Afghani women. Instead, we had to be resourceful and use the universal language of signs and gestures. This meant we were limited in our ability to help but still the treatments we gave, and the human care, resulted in more relaxed bodies and smiley faces.

Days in the camp went very quickly. During my first week, I gave between 8 and 10 treatments per day, and on the second between 11 and 13 per day. Most of the people I treated were new arrivals, and I saw as many men as women with ages ranging between 5 years and 67. The most common issues were severe back pain and knee pain from over use and exhaustion after very long and dangerous journeys, anxiety and insomnia, abdominal pain, poor appetite and digestion, and severe weakness. Amongst the women, menstrual irregularities were common ranging from very scant irregular periods to extremely painful periods and excessive menstrual bleeding. Most of these symptoms were exacerbated by the conditions in the camp at this time of year. Those staying in tents (usually the most recent arrivals) were freezing cold all the time which increased the severity of their pain. In addition, the heavy rains that we had while I was there easily flooded the camp and meant that going to the toilet or to get food would result in being soaked and cold for the rest of the day.

Combining acupuncture and physical therapy

Combining acupuncture and physical therapy

I used scalp and/or ear acupuncture on most people to help with pain, mobility and to calm the nervous system, body acupuncture to address pain and issues with bodily functions, different types of moxibustion for pain and to strengthen the body, cupping on those with severe tension, and massage whenever needed to relax muscles and soothe a person. We also had the heat lamps kindly donated by the organisations Acupuncture Sans Frontiers and Le Mains du Coeur Pour le Cambodge, they have proven a hit with the cold weather and we used them on practically everyone who came for treatment this time. Also thanks to these two organisations, other acupuncturists from Europe have been able to come and work with Earth Medicine this year. As a result, we have managed to get some continuity in treatments and acupuncture has become a well known treatment amongst the refugees.

There are two things that, in my view, are quite unique in the work we can do at Earth Medicine: one of them is that we get to treat people every single day which gives us the opportunity to check progress and change strategies if needed to achieve the best results. The other one is the multi-disciplinary approach, getting to work alongside practitioners of other disciplines and finding out how we can combine efforts for the greatest benefit to those we are treating.

Lesvos abundant veg

From what I have observed, appetite and digestive function amongst refugees is often poor and this leads to other issues including lack of strength and poor general health in the long run. For this reason, I give a lot of importance to enhancing digestion at the same time as addressing their main symptoms. I tended to use a combination of points called the Wheel of life on most people. This combination consists of specific points around the abdomen or on the lower back, which aim to strengthen and activate the function of the digestive system as a whole, increasing appetite and improving the ability to process food and eliminate waste products. The food currently offered in the camp, although most welcome by everyone, is not the most nutritious and not at all like the food the people from Afghanistan, Somalia, or Syria would normally eat. It is all packed in plastic and lacking in freshness and in vegetables. For this reason, many people end up with constipation and acid reflux, which adds to their existing issues. Lesvos is blessed with a gentle climate and with fertile land that produces all sorts of fresh vegetables throughout the year, which are very cheap in the market. It would be ideal if a community kitchen could be set up, managed by the camp authority, where refugees themselves could cook meals which would be much more nutritious and a lot cheaper and environmentally friendly than they are in the current set up. This would also help prevent a lot of health issues. Given the continuing conflicts and natural disasters occurring in many countries, and the fact that small boats are still arriving in Lesvos with people looking for refuge, perhaps a more sustainable, longer-term set up will be necessary.

I went back to visit the burial ground where the bodies of refugees have been laid to rest by the local authorities. The last time I was there, the grass was overgrown shoulder-high, and it was not possible to see clearly many of the graves. This time, the grass had been cut and the site cleared and I could see clearly the hundreds of graves ( I estimated at least 200). They were mostly marked by wooden sticks with a number, some with white headstones which sometimes had the names and dates of passing of the refugees written in fading letters, and only 3 or 4 graves are done in what I imagine is the proper way, I was told because the family of the deceased was around and could afford to do this. I could also see an area that had been marked and separated for 16 graves, most probably destined for the 16 refugees who drowned in the waters around the island while trying to get to safety, over a month ago. Visiting this place to pay my respects has become an important part of my visits to Lesvos. Nobody knows how many lives have been lost since what is called "the refugee crisis" started, and it’s possible that somewhere, their loved ones are still waiting to hear news from them. It would be even more heart-breaking than it already is, if we left them sink into oblivion.

Three graves, one of them a child's

Space separated for 16 new graves

A mother and child

When I asked after all the people I had met before, I was told not many were still in Lesvos. The majority of them had been granted asylum and moved on – mostly to Germany, and some others had been relocated to other camps in mainland Greece. I did manage to say good bye to one family I met earlier this year. The father has an amputated leg and their journey from Afghanistan had been excruciatingly difficult. The mother and the daughters were getting all their things ready to travel to Germany after being granted asylum when I stopped by the container which served them as home for the last 6 months. I felt so happy for them, and for all those I didn’t get to say good bye to. May they all get to feel safe, and have beautiful and prosperous futures.

Every time I have been to Lesvos, despite all the horrific stories, the pain I see in people's bodies and souls, and the less than ideal conditions they have to live in; I somehow come back full of hope, with my heart expanded with compassion and love for all my fellow human beings. This is partly because I see so much resilience, strength, hope and faith in people there that I think to myself, if they can display those amazing qualities under their circumstances, how could I not? On top of that, it's not like there is only sadness. Within the difficulties, there are always beautiful moments of laughter, friendship, connection and true sisterhood and brotherhood between us all. May there be a world one day, in which we will all be able to enjoy moments like these with each other.

A joyful moment - Original photo by Thomas Rajten

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