Refugee support at The Elea Project

An adventure and giving of treatment where most needed during the 1st Lockdown of Covid 19, by Resident Osteopath at Shine, Church Street, Chris Harris.

Tobermory serendipity:

Tobermory is the diminutive but outrageously colourful port town on the Scottish island of Mull. It’s garishly multihued houses along the harbour appear on most postcards of the island. To my eye it looks pretty much like an old fashioned sweet shop turned inside out.

SH Health Scottish seaThe serendipitous event occurred whilst whale watching trip with twenty or so others out in a local boat. I had escaped London in my camper heading north, on a second choice trip. The very definite first choice had been south to Chamonix to meet a mountain guide friend. Covid had put paid to that, and many others people’s plans besides.

Unsurprisingly the energy behind many conversations was how to be reminded that the world was indeed still an interesting and expansive place. Up on deck, in the sunshine and with dolphins frolicking, I got chatting with Haydn who was there with his partner and her family. He was all curly ginger hair, rude health and clearly in possession of an old soul despite his youth. He was not long back from cycling round the world no less. The story was that it was a sponsored trip for charity, the same he had worked for for a couple of months in Athens before starting out. This was the Elea project. It was based within the Eleonas camp just outside the centre of Athens. By his account this was a well-organised operation with good dedicated people plus much good stuff being achieved under its auspices. The emphasis was to not just wander around holding the children’s hands but to set something useful up that could be ongoing. Haydn got busy making the place more fit for humans with some good gardening additions. There was plenty of teaching going on. Another pair of volunteers had got going instructing the youngsters in the fine art of skateboarding. This latter idea had legs: operations were set up in other locations and were clearly of benefit. Not least the girls who gained much needed physical and emotional confidence as their skills improved. I liked the sound of all of it.

I was pretty sure my skills as an Osteopath would be useful and in demand. In a refugee camp, by definition life has been difficult. People fleeing war and persecution, often having experienced extremes of human cruelty and extremes of dislocation, loss and grief. There would be many individuals who had less than ideal memories held in their tissues, of this I was sure. Obviously there might be occasions when the work would be contraindicated and perhaps beyond my paygrade. However experience has shown, that even in extreme situations, to respectfully and gently have a go is usually the way forward and seems to be helpful. To make my input doable, I would need to be received by someone who understood what I did and could make the work possible. This turned out to be the contact Haydn gave me: Emily Wilson.

With her I came up trumps. A couple of phone calls established the following. Emily had been working in the camp for four years and knew everything and everyone. She was generous with her time and enthusiastic, giving every impression of being completely reliable and an invaluable source of contacts and information. She suggested a short recce as a prelude to possibly a longer trip in the new year when covid was more on the wane. Also importantly she asserted that the trip would indeed be good fun. There was a vibrant community of volunteers with which friends could be made. Athens was doing its thing too. Bars and restaurants were open and the weather was clement. Full disclosure, please realise the following. My motivation was definitely to do some useful work. It was also very definitely and very selfishly to get the hell out of London. Lockdown had seriously taken the wind out of my sails: the world was shrivelling up like a prune and my spirits with it. This all seemed like an extremely welcome antidote. I bagged an Air BandB and booked a flight, leaving within the week.

I met Emily for coffee the first morning. She was every bit as full of beans in the flesh as she had been telephonically and we covered a lot of ground quickly. I got some of the backstory which I feel illustrated her character well. Her journey to here had started half a dozen years before somewhere in the west country.

SH health time desk monotonyLife at the time was secure with a house, relationship and teaching job, albeit monotonously so. For some of course this would be paradise, however not for this lady. The boredom and lack of challenge came to an intolerable head one day. Life had shrunk to a singularity involving grey skies and an egg-bound hen in the garden. This means more than a slightly less generous breakfast, at least to the animal concerned. When in this condition the poor thing cannot poop as the anus is clamped shut until the egg is expelled. An explosively unpleasant death would be the result within 24hours or so. For Emily this was a concern. However a far more urgent concern, was that life would henceforth consist of similarly mundane concerns for the rest of her days, unless she took the leap. The emergency eject button was pressed soon after. Think early James Bond. Gearstick in the Aston with secret flip up switch. Sean Connery’s wry smirk as he launches through the roof into the sky. Only this was Emily herself, off to Spain.

Here she promptly picked up a T12 compression fracture whilst snowboarding. Dear colleagues, how many vertical compressions have we had to tease out from planet earth coming into violent contact with boarders’ backsides? Too many!

SH Chris blog EmilyFortunately in this instance no cord damage, just a lot of pain for a long time. Through that came rehab with pilates and yoga, thence a yoga teacher training: everything for a reason and all that. Thence Greece and the Eleonas camp. Thence a suitably challenging channel for her boundless energy, compassion and teaching skills. This was the Elea project. These are “group of volunteers from around the world who have come together to work collaboratively with the residents of Eleonas Refugee Camp in Athens to improve living standards and community well-being”. So says the website blurb. So also says the reality I witnessed when I was there.

She showed me round giving me a running commentary of the internal politics, infrastructure and personalities. For the people we adopted a private code. If she was introducing a special person they were “here is my GOOD friend Abdul/Mohammed/Stacey…” as opposed to just friend. Special meant really special. Usually refugee residents who had despite some awful backstories kept some humour, helpfulness and humanity. Many were her tireless helpers. This involved running around working hard for no money, frequently weaving in and out of paid “workers” who were mostly busy boredly smoking fags and drinking coffee. Several of her guys were in pain or exhausted and thus earmarked for my ministrations.

SH Chris blog couchThis began after the weekend. In a storage room two trestle tables were erected and put together. A scruffy few blankets were laid out. Ceiling high piled boxes of Pampers nappies teetered above me in a slightly threatening fashion. Not without some trepidation I began to see people. I examined as best I could and interrogated as best I could, often through a translator. Pretty quickly I realised that the usual route of covering the basics of accident or traumatic history was not appropriate.

A pattern emerged. The patients would present cheerfully and graciously and describe a few aches. There was some banter and some laughter. These were generally young-ish men between 20 and 40. Syria, Lebanon, Kurdestan and Iraq were represented amongst others. Sometimes following palpatory hints, or hints from the patient, I would ask a little more about the bigger back story. Then, shoulders would slump and voices would drop an octave. Eyes would loose their sparkle. A profound world weariness would leak and show itself such as I could not remember ever seeing. It became apparent that it was these types of trauma that I was here for much more than the various sore bits in their musculoskeletal systems. I quickly realised that the enormous elephants in the room needed quick nods of acknowledgement, not tactless pokes in the ribs. I adjusted and proceeded accordingly, both in conversation and treatments.

Even working super gently with the cranial mechanism extreme reactions were a real possibility. I erred on the side of caution however I also erred on the side of at least attempting some treatment rather than none. I felt that giving the body a chance to do some healing was appropriate. It was me there and then or nowt: access to any medical or otherwise help was subject to much delay and stifling bureaucracy.

Sadly the trip ended abruptly after only a few days with the introduction of a new strict lockdown which meant I could not leave the air BandB let alone continue the work in the camp. So the more detailed exposition of what I encountered Osteopathically will have to wait until the next visit. Kalamata, where I had a friend and the beautiful Mani peninsula below it would have to wait too. Whether the mission was commendable or not was debatable under the circumstances: I did the PCR test on my return. I had however made my getaway and made some good contacts: force of nature and superstar Emily plus local boy and classmate Dimitri Boulanger who made me most welcome.

SH Health ChrisI had made the world a little less shrivelled up for a while. For this at least I was heartily glad. 

Chris Harris    Cranial Osteopath

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