Children on the Move

By Dr. B. Emily Esmaili

I am trained as a pediatrician — not in driving through the snowy Balkans to care for Syrian refugees stuck in Greece while awaiting resettlement.

Nor was I trained to navigate the complex algorithms of resettlement and immigration law for patients who visit my clinic in Durham, North Carolina.

And yet, the current refugee crisis has made me something of an expert on both matters.

The recent, escalating warfare in Syria conjures memories of children I cared for in northern Greece while working for the Syrian American Medical Society. There, they lived in flimsy tents and crowded hotel rooms, on the move for years while waiting for relocation assignments with both hopeful anticipation and desperation.

A young refugee in Greece. Photo credit Ben Sager.

It also reminds me of the families who, by grace it seems, have managed to make it to the United States, and through my clinic doors.

Having met these children-on-the-move at different junctures in their long, asylum-seeking journeys, one distinct difference is clear: my patients here have stability, school, healthcare and security.

They may tell me they still panic each time they hear a plane fly overhead, but here I can tell them — with confidence — they are safe. The same cannot be said on other, more fluctuating shores.

It can be difficult to appreciate the fallout from Syria’s long war by watching television or reading a computer screen. But after seeing suffering up close, you yearn for a softening of those immigration policies pushed by our current administration.

It was clear that our president was moved by the sight of children hurt or killed in the recent Sarin attack in Syria. Perhaps he would be equally moved had he shared my eyes in Greece, where we found hundreds of refugees who by the time we reached them had gone more than six months with no medical care and limited contact with the outside world.

In remote ski-resort hotels scattered along impassable roads, we found rooms packed with large families and even larger needs: shrapnel in eardrums; elderly who months earlier had run out of their hypertension meds; post-partum mothers isolated and sometimes suicidal; unsupervised children left to drink Pepsi for breakfast and, on occasion, to tumble down marble stairwells. Everyone slept until late in the afternoon, as if to avoid another day of uncertainty.

Refugee housing in Greece. Photo credit Ben Sager.

We also came upon some hints of hope: school-aged children showed us their small compositions in five languages, learned while moving through different camps, though having never actually been to school. A teen had organized classes in “popping” (funk-style dance) for the younger kids. There were makeshift weddings. And anyone with a few English phrases invited us back to their room for tea.

These small kindnesses jumped out at me from the otherwise bleak, lifeless landscape. The hospitality and humanity around us were as striking as those jagged snow-capped Balkans.

Back home in Durham, clinic days have been quiet of late. With the recent onslaught of immigration policy changes, new refugee arrivals have slowed tremendously — halved to be exact.

The recent news out of Syria means even more children will be flooding into places like Greece; meanwhile, many of us here sit unwillingly idle in our well-equipped, spacious clinics.

In medical school, I did not learn anything about human rights law nor about packing a hatch-back with enough medical supplies to save a life and treat a few runny noses. However, being a pediatrician has drawn me close into the lives of vulnerable children — both on a global stage and locally in my community clinic.

A young boy rides his bike among refugee tents in Greece. Photo credit Ben Sager.

And as an Iranian-American, I have tasted what it is to live in uncertainty — fearing that I might not be allowed back into the U.S. if I visit Greece, and coming to accept that my family in Iran cannot attend my wedding here in a few weeks.

So rather than erecting more walls and impasses, I urge us to consider — and create — a different design for humanity. For those who have grown up amidst war and flux, and for those frozen in fear and unpredictability, perhaps we can offer some promise of spring.

Dr. B. Emily Esmaili is a practicing pediatrician and graduate student in the Duke Initiative for Science & Society’s Masters of Bioethics & Science Policy program.

A version of this piece appeared in the News & Observer April 12, 2017.



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