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Pocatello doctor going on medical mission to Greek refugee camp

October 14, 2018

On a lush Mediterranean island famous for its pristine beaches and lavish resorts, Dr. Georgia Milan will soon be immersed in human suffering and squalor, hoping to make a small difference in the lives of refugees.

The Pocatello family physician will spend Oct. 20 through Nov. 9 administering medical aid at the overcrowded Moria Refugee Camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos. Milan said conditions at Moria are abhorrent and continue to deteriorate as more refugees arrive on the beaches of Lesbos in small boats.

The tide too often carries in bodies — many are infants and children — of people who attempted to flee war-torn homelands in boats that weren’t seaworthy. Bodies are often found strapped in fake life jackets, stuffed with sawdust and supplied by smugglers hired to transport desperate families to a better place.

“All of us in our lives and our prayers and actions, we cannot turn our backs,” Milan said.

Milan’s medical team — which will also include a physician assistant and six support staff members — will represent a small, Helena, Montana-based grassroots organization, Hands On Global.

Milan will pay her own way to Moria, but she’s organized a fundraiser to buy additional medical supplies, as well as blankets and coats to help the refugees survive the coming winter.

Her Dinner for the Displaced is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Oct. 18 at the First Presbyterian Church, 202 S. 7th Ave., in Pocatello. It will include presentations about the global refugee crisis and Middle Eastern soup, salad, pita and baklava.

The suggested donation is $15 per person, and free for children.

Though Greece has a failed economy, it’s one of the few countries in the world where refugees are now welcome without prior vetting. Moria — one of five Greek camps — has reached more than triple its intended capacity, and the population continues to grow.

Refugees are arriving from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout Africa. Once at the camp, many find themselves stuck indefinitely, waiting for a new country to accept them.

“Many of these people have been there for years, and the boats keep coming,” Milan said.

Residents of Moria spend most of their days waiting in lines. They typically wait 12 hours for moldy food rations, according to a recent article by the New York Times. The Times also reported lines of about 80 people per shower, and 70 people per toilet. Children cope with sewage seeping into their tents. The preferred housing is metal boxes supplied by the United Nations, resembling train cars, that sleep up to 20 people each.

Doctors already on the ground in Moria have told staff at Hands on Global that tuberculosis, chicken pox, measles, skin conditions, viruses and lice are rampant. Mental health problems are also widespread, as refugees who believed they’d escaped bad circumstances have found themselves in a new state of misery, Milan said. Milan likened Moria to a 19th century European insane asylum.

“There’s a lot of violence, a lot of despair and a lot of suicide. Children are committing suicide now,” said Milan, who will be living in a rental home outside of the camp. “Doctors Without Borders has said this is the worst refugee situation they have ever seen.”

Valerie Hellermann, a former Montana registered nurse, started Hands on Global five years ago, originally to help address the medical needs of the poor in India. Last November, she received a plea from another medical team informing her of the “desperate” situation in Greece. They sent a seven-person team to Moria last February.

When Hellermann’s team arrived, about 4,000 refugees lived in the camp, and another 1,000 lived in an overflow area. Now, she said more than 9,000 live in the camp, and the overflow area has about 4,000 refugees.

Even in February, before the population swelled, Hellermann said people waited in food lines for up to eight hours, and there wasn’t enough food to go around. Refugees regularly provided her team paperwork for medical prescriptions to address chronic ailments, with no means of obtaining the necessary drugs. Hellermann said her team was surprised by the level of education of the refugees, many of whom had been doctors, lawyers and farmers.

“One on one, we’re helping, and we promise the people we’re there to bear witness,” Hellermann said. “We come back and tell the story so other people know this is going on.”

Despite the growing refugee crisis, CNN recently reported that the 22,491 refugees admitted into the U.S. in Fiscal Year 2018 was the lowest total in more than 40 years.

“Here in Montana, we import people to help with sheep farming,” Hellermann said. “Bring them here. They can sheep farm. They’ve been doing it for centuries.”

Milan is a family physician, but she has no clinic, having given up “corporate medicine” years ago to devote herself to the needs of those who can’t afford health care.

She holds a degree in international humanitarian aid, and she’s worked with migrants in Montana and the poor in Nepal, Northern India, Tibet, Central America and Mexico. She’s also been active in No More Deaths, a humanitarian organization founded in 2004 to help displaced Central American refugees arriving in Southern Arizona. Both of her daughters also do humanitarian work in Arizona.

Milan’s upcoming fundraiser will be cosponsored by the Idaho State University PEACE club. Jesse Kiboko, ISU’s immigration adviser coordinator, will speak at the event about the decade he spent helping refugees entering Houston find work and make the transition to American life. Kiboko assisted them through 2008 on behalf of a local community college, where he served as immigration adviser and a case manager.

“They were running from war. The situation has not changed,” Kiboko said. “In the Congo during the last seven years, over 5 million people have been killed.”

Kiboko encourages people in the local community to support Milan’s medical mission and believes increasing awareness about the situation may be the most important aspect of what she does.

“Everybody should be helping those refugees,” Kiboko said. “It’s about sharing love.”

For all of the heartbreaking situations Milan has witnessed to date, she knows nothing will compare to what she’ll experience when she arrives in Greece. She promises she’ll report what she’s seen when she returns and will be the “eyes and ears” of the refugees to the world.

“It may seem like such a drop in the ocean, and yet, how can we not do (something) at this point?” Milan asked. “There’s value in having your heart broken by the world’s suffering.”