Over the last few years, Greek Australian nurse, Helen Zahos, has featured in the news for travelling to international destinations to help refugees and those affected by war. Sometimes, such as her recent trip to Iraq, Helen has paid for the trip herself, other times she has fundraised for medical supplies to help those in need, such as the refugees that passed through Lesvos. Here the Queensland-based nurse talks to Billy Cotsis.
You have been a nurse and senior medical officer in a number of hotspot areas internationally. Can you tell us where they were and what drew you to help?
I have volunteered in disaster responses such as the Philippines post-Typhoon Hyan2013 and the Nepal earthquake 2015. I then went and volunteered in Greece during the financial crisis in Thessaloniki helping pensioners that could not afford medication and treatment. I have worked on Christmas Island and Nauru in Australian offshore detention facilities. I have volunteered in Greece in 2015/16 during the height of the refugee crisis when refugees were flocking to Greece via Turkey. I was in Lesvos as well as Idomeni at the border. I returned to Greece for one month to the Syrian refugee camp in 2017 in the refugee camps to volunteer again and currently I’m in Iraq. I’m assisting to set up an emergency field clinic in an IDP (internally displaced people) camp.
I think I’m drawn to helping people. I’ve always helped in the community at a local level and this just extends from that. A lot of people use the word philotimo, my interpretation of that is to help a fellow human being without discrimination and without expecting anything in return. When Greece was struck by the financial crisis I was concerned for my family there and for Greece. The only way I felt I could contribute was through my nursing.
Now you are in Mosul, what is the situation on the ground there? How do you think you will help?
The camps are 20km east of Mosul; there are several including some local villages that make up a hundred thousand people.
Fighting has increased in Mosul with Isis trying to take control. This is a war happening in a city with civilians trying to live. Many have no homes now to go back to, they have witnessed horrific scenes of family members being tortured and decapitated, people suffering from violence. They have fled Mosul in the hopes of one day returning and rebuilding their homes. Too poor to leave for Europe, these people are sitting in IDP camps … waiting, hoping. I am volunteering with ADRA. They are building an emergency field hospital to receive referrals from the surrounding camps and villages as the nearest hospital in a green zone is two hours drive away. It is an impressive project with a 30-bed capacity and will only take emergency cases. At the moment I’m giving some of my advice and we are working as a team. We have a brilliant mix of international doctors, nurses and medics specialising in their fields contributing and collaborating information. Most importantly we have a mental health program running with psychologists that specialise in torture and trauma. I am also helping in the camps directly delivering primary health care.
How are the soldiers treating you and all the other foreigners?
The soldiers and local fighters have been really good, greeting us at checkpoints and looking out for us in the camps. Australian and Americans are seen as allies in the fight against Isis. The soldiers mean business, they are not to be messed with and can be very intimidating, however, they have been nice to our team members.
You sent me a picture of a Greek restaurant in Mosul which I thought was amazing. Are there any Hellenes there?
Yes! How excited I was to see a Greek restaurant. I have been told there is a Greek population particularly in Erbil which has Christian neighbourhoods. There are also a couple of Orthodox churches and if I get a chance I will visit, and I have met many members of the Yazidi minority. I went to Alqosh, the last major Christian village that remains in Iraq. The priest has a radio, which the soldiers use to warn him if they need to evacuate at a moment’s notice. These people are in a war which they did not start or want. They are fighting for their right to be Christian. The mass I attended was powerful: the walls were filled with bullets, some of the walls destroyed by rockets. The power of the people in Alqosh as they sang was incredible. I realise how easy we have it in Australia, we do not have to fight a battle just to attend church.
You featured in a documentary called Lesvos: fall in Love talking about the refugee [crisis] on Lesvos, which seems to have subsided. Are there any similarities with the refugees in Mosul?
The similarities are that the people on Lesvos fled from here as they had the money to make the journey. The others are left here and going to return to Mosul one day and rebuild.
The feeling is different in the camps in Greece as they were initially on the move and wouldn’t stay long. They didn’t want to stay in Greece. Here, outside Mosul there are over a hundred thousand people stranded and they have been stationary for some time. In Greece the camps had teams of volunteers entertaining the children like ‘clowns without borders’ and had temporary schools created up with plenty of activities. Here, day after day I see children playing with rocks off the ground. There is a dullness in their eyes, they are gaunt and malnutritioned.
Has the situation with the refugees on Lesvos and indeed on the islands changed since you were there in 2016?
Absolutely. The change is that the once known Registration camp of Moria, where refugees and asylum seekers would register has now turned into a Detention Centre where people are held until they are either sent back to Turkey or their country of origin. They have adopted a similar framework to what the Australian government uses. The constant stream of people has slowed significantly but arrivals still occur. Those refugees in camps are much more settled in Greece and have a routine where the children attend school and have food readily available.
What’s next for you?
Well I’m still in Iraq. Late this month I will return to the Gold Coast and to my work in the emergency department. I really don’t know what the future holds. I keep saying this will be my last trip… but then I end up going off to help somewhere. I would definitely like to come back to Iraq to see how the project is going.
* Billy Cotsis is the author of ‘From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities & a Fiefdom’.