Samos Refugee Camp


We really had no idea what we were signing up for when we offered to provide dental care for refugees on the Greek island of Samos. We had gone out for Chinese food after the screening of a movie, “All Governments Lie” Adelaide had helped produce the film, and we wanted to celebrate the opening. Karen and Jay were talking about their work in Greece when my boyfriend Charlie, a retired periodontist suddenly offered, “I could take care of their teeth.” That was in November, before Trump, before the travel ban, before we had ever heard of Dentaid. My adult son Gabe, when asked what he wanted for Christmas, said he wanted to work with the refugees, and Charlie is a carpe diem kind of guy.

There were lots of steps in between that pledge and its realization…. meeting Ruth and Chuck, contacting Medicine Sans Frontiers, and finally stumbling across Dentaid online. And then it all fell into place- the first time we contacted Kerry she was just heading off to scout out possible missions in Lesvos and Samos. Next she said she was looking for teams to go in May, which we had already decided was our optimal window. I will never forget sitting at Charlie’s dining room table in January and clicking “purchase” for three round trip tickets to Athens. Charlie, my son Gabe and I were going on a dental mission to Greece.

When we arrived in Samos on Saturday afternoon we headed straight for the Paradise Hotel, where we had been advised to stay. We were first greeted by a pack of Arabic children playing in the rose petal’d courtyard, then by Sevi behind the front desk who told us everything we needed to know and had bicycles delivered to us within a half an hour. We unpacked our bags and rode straight up to the Hot Spot, about 1000 vertiginous meters above us. After a few false starts with the police and a lovely encounter with Vanessa from the Boat Refugee Foundation, we managed to locate Marie Dimitria, the camp coordinator, who dispatched us in a most business like manner. She copied our passports, pointed out the shipping container where we would work, and instructed us to not to return until Monday at 1 PM.

That first night we ate chicken with apples and prunes and drank sweet Samosan wine in at Efikaria, a Taverna recommended by Vanessa. Later Charlie and I went back to drink an Ouzo and watch a futbol match. Scores of children chased each other around the lion statue in the center of the square, blissfully neglected and wildly happy and free, while their parents applied themselves to the important task of cheering on their favorite teams.

We were granted a glorious empty Sunday, which we spent circumnavigating the island. Our first stop was Kokarri, an artsy beach colony reminiscent of Key West in the 60’s. Here we bought a white clay dove to put on our roof like the Greeks, ate some gelato and swam in the turquoise sea. Then back in the Suzuki stick shift to the interior of the island, where we found pine forests, stone terraces that must have been a thousand years old, honey stands, roadside shrines painted Tiffany blue, and amazing vistas of the sea and the Turkish skyline. The air smells of orange blossoms, honeysuckle, fennel and what might be olive blossoms. We arrived on the other side of the island and hair-pinned down to the opposite shore, just in time to visit the Temple of Hera, a sacred site since before 1000 BC. The Mother Goddess is alive and well in Samos, as my son Gabe can attest.

We ate in Pythagoria, where yachts from Germany, England and Sweden were parked along the malecon. Every Greek restaurant has served a complementary dessert; on this occasion a caramel laced creamy pana cotta. We conjectured that the prominence of honey in the local diet might account for the remarkable number of patisseries per capita. But we could not account for the coffee shops on every corner, which offer really good cappuccinos and lattes, and which are full of gorgeous young Greeks playing backgammon with their sexy motorcycles parked out front.



On Monday we got to work. After a mandatory and much needed cappuccino, we stopped over to meet the lovely Cretean, Antigone, who runs the MSF office in Samos. She explained the complex hierarchy of government agencies and NGO’s that operate the refugee camps- the Greek Government, the UN Refugee organization, the EU, which processes asylum applications, Medins which works with the local hospital to provide medial care & MSF which focus on mental health and has relocated at risk families to centers in town, like ours at the Hotel Paradise. BRF which has a staff of volunteers that work with mothers and provide infant formula and diapers, and a flotilla of NGO’s that do every thing from teaching chess to, well, providing dental care. Charlie called a local dentist, Nick, and made a date to discuss modern periodontal therapies on Wednesday night.

After a delicious spanakopita from the local bakery we went upward again to the Hot Spot, this time in the car packed full of gauze, Novocain, dental instruments, and soccer balls. We donned our scrubs in the parking lot and entered the camp feeling like imposters. Our shipping container came equipped with several folding chairs, an examination table, a sink, and flotsam and jetsam of medical and dental supplies. We quickly set up shop; Gabe was to assist Charlie with the dental work while I did intake, prep, cleaned the instruments and disposed of the sharps. Marie Dimitria’s team announced our presence in Arabic, Farsi and Pashtun; they also provided us with a translator, who introduced himself “Saddam Hussein” “Sure, and I am Yasser Arafat,” joked Gabe-but his name really was Saddam Hussein. We did not have to wait long for the first patient to arrive.

Malachi, had an infected molar that needed to be removed. What a bear that molar was, or rather we could say that Malachi had teeth like a bear, big strong roots entwined about his bone. Poor Charlie and Gabe were given a bath of fire, as they dug for the slippery broken roots, scraping away bone, and demanding gauze, chisels and root tip picks. Poor Saddam watched with growing alarm as the sweat poured down Charlie’s brow and the blood covered gauze piled up on the tray. “Why is it taking so long?” he asked, “Are you sure you know what you are doing?” I closed my eyes and prayed to Allah for Malachi’s molar to surrender to the tongs. I feared that if we failed with our first patient the rest would flee. Finally, the last bit of root was excavated and a smiling Malachi was released into the world, free of infection and pain.

After that they just kept coming, a pleasant fellow named Mohammed Ali whose tooth slid out like a kernel of corn, a vain young man with a terribly infected gum who refused to let us operate, a shy man who asked us to close the door and then removed his lower denture, exposing the bare stubs of a few front incisors that held an unglued bridge. “I was in a Syrian jail for six years”, he typed on Google translate ”This is what they did to me.” Charlie called Nick who offered cement and told our Syrian friend to come back tomorrow. In all, we saw seven patients and performed four extractions in the stuffy shipping container.

When no more patients came we cleaned up and waited for Corrien, from BRF, who gave us a tour of the “hotspot.”. The camp, which was designed for 600, now holds about 1000 refugees. “It’s much better now then last winter,” she explained, “when we had 2500.” The camp is terraced on a steep hill; the level below us is for unaccompanied minors, ages 12-18; then several levels for families, in containers like ours. Below that, large tents, which hold 12-14, singe men. We could see them through the flaps, taut and idle, crouched on their blankets, smoking. At the bottom of the hill is a locked gate, but next to it is an opening in the wire where people stream in and out of the camp.

“Officially it’s a closed camp.” Corrien explained “but we are not allowed to keep people locked up for more than 25 days, so, well, you see…” We asked her about the relationship between the towns people and the camp. She shrugged. “The refugees do not want to be here and the people do not want them here. But it is a humanitarian crisis. The people from the camps go into the town to drink coffee, or play futbol, but sometimes things are stolen. The townspeople are suffering too, because of austerity, because tourism is down, and sometime they blame the refugees.” But mostly it is good. Mostly they do not fight.”

The main camp was pretty clean, but as we climbed to the upper levels, the order broke down giving way to irregular tents and debris. Corrine pointed to two more “informal” exits, breaks in the wire like a prison escape “Just in case” she said, “You need to get out in a hurry.”

Feeling pretty pleased with our first foray, we piled back into the Suzuki and returned to the Hotel Paradise. We were greeted by a long awaited package with Dentaid T-shirts, Fugi 9 filling material, and wonder of wonders, cement for the broken bridge.



The next day began with a wonderful hike up the byzantine alleys of the Ano Vathi- the ancient city layered and carved into a hill behind the town of Samos. Then Charlie returned to MSF and was introduced to the miraculous Dr. Mannos, a local physician who keeps peace between all the aid agencies. Mannos reigns over a rich store of medical supplies. “Help yourselves,” he offered, “but please keep track of what you take.” He sighed, “There are some people who think it is important to count everything. I am Greek, and I don’t care about counting, but I count to keep them happy.” We commiserated and then plundered the supply room for toothbrushes, toothpaste, disinfectant, and gauze. We raced up the hill to the Hot Spot for our second day of work.

Day number two was non-stop action. Word had spread and a line of men formed outside our makeshift clinic. Our friend Saddam returned, and the Google Translate that Gabe downloaded with an Arabic keyboard further improved communication. We treated more than twelve patients. Charlie was able to save two badly decayed teeth, as we now had filling material, but he pulled many more that were beyond help. One man, Omar, with two impacted wisdom teeth, complained that he hadn’t been able to chew for three months. Another, Alfonse, asked for a selfie with the three of us and promised to bring his wife the next day. The high point was re-cementing our Syrian friend’s bridge. We worked on his mouth with infinite tenderness, mindful of the ghosts of prison guards who had been there before us. He left with a smile. When we closed up shop at seven o’clock there was a waiting list of five or six patients, including a young pregnant woman.

We walked home from the Taverna under a full moon with full bellies, happy to be able to help and ready for a busy day tomorrow.

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