Minneapolis nurse leads medical mission trips overseas

September 10, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Three years ago, Lindsey Smith was in a Turkish marketplace when she saw a woman screaming and crying. Her family had been killed in the Syrian war.

“When I came back, that was really the image that stuck with me,” she said. “Even though I couldn’t understand what she was saying, I could really feel her emotion and pain.”

Smith, 36, a geriatric nurse practitioner from Minneapolis, was in the Middle East to learn about hospice care for the Muslim population. She initially wanted to pursue culturally sensitive care.

But her experience took her on a different path. It was a complete lifestyle change prompted by what she witnessed abroad: the largest refugee crisis on record.

Smith is leading a medical mission trip to Bosnia Sept. 10. It will be her fifth mission trip since that visit to the Middle East three years ago. It will also be her longest, as she’s committed eight months this time, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

It all started around the time the media began to focus attention on the Syrian refugee crisis, when thousands were fleeing into Greece.

Smith came across a flyer for a nonprofit medical relief organization called the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). At one of its fundraisers, she met a Mayo Clinic oncologist who was born and raised in Syria. She told him she wanted to get involved.

“Literally three weeks later I found myself on the border of Greece and Macedonia, when the borders had closed, with 35,000 people in a farm field,” she said. “We were working out of a van providing care with SAMS with pretty much medications and backpacks and basic equipment.”

Since then, she’s been using her vacation time to go on similar mission trips. She went to Iraq during the battle with ISIS. She helped out in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. This spring, she led a mission trip to the Lebanon-Syria border where she gathered up 34 volunteers, including 10 from Minnesota, to form a team of medical professionals with a range of specialties.

The day they arrived was the day the United States and its allies launched airstrikes against chemical weapon storage facilities in Syria.

“Many of the people we are caring for were from areas where those chemical attacks were, so they had people that they lost during that time,” she recalled. “And so it was definitely a really emotional week for everyone.”

Smith’s journey hasn’t been easy. But to her, it doesn’t compare to what the refugees have been through. That’s why she can’t stop doing it.

Smith has saved up enough money to quit her full-time job as a nurse. She recently sold most of her belongings and moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a bedroom at her brother’s house.

“This summer I was a nanny, a dog sitter, a house sitter,” she said.

Now she’s able to do this volunteering full-time without the constraints of limited vacation days.

Those who’ve volunteered with Smith describe her as someone who’s easy to connect with. The language barriers don’t seem to get in her way. People invite her to their tents for tea and sweets. They crack Arabic jokes with her to make light of dire circumstances.

“It’s really amazing that she’s focusing on these places,” said Mohamad Khouli, a Syrian native from Minnesota who joined her on the last trip to the Lebanon-Syrian border. “To focus on those where they are, in dire situations, in between countries, they don’t know what to do, where to go. Of course they have medical needs ... for Lindsey to take on this mission is great.”

Smith is starting in Sarajevo next week. She plans to rent a car and drive from camp to camp to assess needs. SAMS plans to send additional volunteers to join her later.

Bosnia, a country that has experienced its own war and genocide in the 1990s, hasn’t been at the center of the European refugee crisis like other countries.

But when the so-called Balkan route into Western Europe closed two years ago, thousands who fled from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were trapped in Bosnia — a country that’s not in the European Union and not equipped to handle refugees.

But it shares a border with Croatia, a member of the European Union. So smugglers have created a new route to the Croatian border for people trying to enter the European Union.

“There’s people living in the woods, there’s people living in abandoned buildings, a lot of unaccompanied minors. Sex trafficking is an issue, organ trafficking. A lot of really vulnerable people,” Smith said. “One of the most needy camps is on the border of Croatia, and that’s an old abandoned campground. They’re living in tents and the winter is coming. And so this is a huge concern because they’re expecting a lot of people will perish due to hypothermia and different winter issues.”

When she first started doing this work, Smith felt like she couldn’t make a difference. The United Nations has described this as the largest refugee crisis on record, and it’s not easy to solve.

There are times, however, that make her feel like she is making an impact.

In Iraq, she met a 3-year-old boy whose family was kidnapped by ISIS. He was tortured, thrown against the wall. She said ISIS fighters had bitten off his ear. He had broken bones all over his body.

“And the little boy was so sweet, just loving and so kind,” she said, holding back tears. “It was so hard to just comprehend how anybody could do this to a person and how these people could still be so trusting and loving.”

Smith helped raise money for him and his family. He went to Germany and was treated. Last she heard, he was doing well.

So, even with all the trauma, Smith said, the people she meets are enough to keep her going. She often documents a mix of it all — the hard-to-witness events, but also the children’s joy when she offers up her iPhone for selfies.

“I have been so uplifted by their grace and their kindness,” she said. “I feel like I would just be paralyzed after experiencing what so many people had and how they can still be so kind and loving and trusting. That has always really just blown me away.”


Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org

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