What It's Like to be a Disabled Refugee

Three stories from the camps in Greece.

by Stav Dimitropoulos
Dec 19 2016, 1:00pm

Images: Stav Dimitropoulos

Shaig Rasuli was assured by his smugglers, who extracted $20,000 from his family of four, that his medical condition and overall quality of life would turn the corner once he'd reached the dreamland of Europe. In Afghanistan, after all, there is one doctor for every 6,000 people. Rasuli, 32, has had hydrocephaly since birth, and knew that his recurrent episodes of epilepsy, vomiting and passing out would only get worse in the future. The minimum he needed to lead a decent life was to have a shunt system inserted in his skull, allowing excess fluid to drain. Otherwise, he could expect permanent brain damage, loss of physical or mental ability, perhaps death. But, have that kind of operation where, and in what hospital in Kunduz, Rasuli's homeland? He was lucky enough to stock up on some furosemide, acetazolamide and isosorbide, handed out by the Médecins Sans Frontières team in Kunduz, in September of 2015. Only a few days later, the deadly hospital airstrike took place, killing 42 patients and doctors. 

Nine months ago, the whole Rasuli family embarked on an illegal crossing to Europe, aiming for Germany. Everything, they'd heard, would be fine with the aid of a remarkably well-organized, illicit web of smugglers, spanning nationalities from Iran to Hungary and from Turkey to Austria. Europe's shutdown of the Balkan route in March 2016, however, put a temporary halt to the smugglers' enterprises, and transformed Greece into a limbo for those who had escaped but not yet arrived. 

60,000 people from tens of nations have been rounded up at Greece's detention centers, in a country that has been deep in recession for seven years. First-world consciences may have been soothed by pouring money into the fiscally troubled country (the new European Union emergency assistance scheme will channel €500 million into the migrant crisis through 2018). But the fact remains that a few hundred employees at 41 detention centers are left to cope with bulging numbers of asylum requests and procedures, and a constrained national healthcare system with the increasing medical needs of people escaping war and poverty.

"We are sorry, but we cannot perform the operation because you do not have legal documents," was the reply Rasuli received during his last visit at a Greek hospital, about a month ago, he says.

"My head feels like a knife is inside it poking my brain," he adds, miming a knife stabbing into his skull. We're sitting in the Elliniko camp, a place of debatable hygiene and stale life expectations. His gait is unsteadier every day, and, worse, he now has problems controlling his bladder and his bowels—in this camp, amidst dozens of people. He admits to all this, casting his eyes downwards.

"I pray five times a day," he says softly. "God will not abandon me now."

Shaig Rasuli

Shaig Rasuli

Parwin Amini, 30, is the second wife of a formerly mighty Jihad commander named Daut Amini, who has now been reduced to the role of second-in-command leader of the same Elliniko camp where Rasuli prays five times a day. In Afghanistan, Amini was the daughter of an imam who was brutally murdered by the Taliban ten years ago. A man in Afghanistan can negotiate a more "exclusive" marriage; an unprivileged daughter, no. But Amini has made peace with Daut's first wife, she says; that's not her utmost concern.

"I've got acute headaches three to four days a week," she says. "Often I cannot sleep because my hands are tingling...When I do fall asleep, I see nightmares, my father lying there, blood dripping from his head and nostrils, his eyes popped out in terror..."

Flashbacks, reliving the trauma over and over, foggy memory, heart palpitation, disturbing thoughts of killing herself, nightmares, absence of milk from her one breast—these  are the symptoms Amini reported to a doctor at the camp. He told her she was likely suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PSTD), and advised her husband to stand by her. That's all. And what should an otolaryngologist—that was his specialty—from a non-governmental organization treat first? A nine-months-pregnant women on the brink of miscarriage? Children with measles? Men limping from Taliban bullets? Middle-aged women with breast cancer?  

Lately, Amini, a placid woman who wanted to be a pharmacist before joining the commander's commune, has been scratching her head and lips until they bleed—a symptom that has even alarmed her normally unconcerned husband. (Some people with PTSD engage in self-harm as a way of grounding themselves in present time, disassociating from past trauma or serial flashbacks).

"More than me," Parwin says defeatedly, "I'm concerned about my older daughter. She is nine and already depressed."

Daut and Parwin Amini

Daut and Parwin Amini

Eleven year-old Νadia Amiri has a degenerative form of muscular dystrophy. She could walk until she was four. Then, she suddenly started limping, progressively acquiring the pretzel limbs and lolling head she has today, according to her uncle Ahmad Amiri, who has been taking care of her in the absence of her biological parents. Eight months ago, Nadia's parents got arrested in Turkey, and Nadia spent one month in a shelter among other unattended children. At some point, the Turkish authorities managed to re-unite her with her uncle at the Eleonas camp in Athens. Her parents are still missing. At night, Nadia often lets out a wail, calling for her parents. Her uncle and his wife, Alima, rush to give her a fluffy pig toy—a present from her parents on Nadia's last birthday. Mr. Pig usually does the trick.

Nadia and Ahmad Amiri

According to the same uncle, a former soldier in Kabul, Nadia's life is in danger. She has been diagnosed with myotonic muscular dystrophy (MMD), and the prolonged spasms every time she uses her muscles have alerted the doctors to the deterioration of her condition. Doctors have told Amiri that his niece's central nervous system, heart, gastrointestinal tract, eyes, and hormone-producing glands will start dysfunctioning. There is no cure for any form of muscular dystrophy, but medications, exercise, physical therapy, rehabilitative devices, respiratory care, and surgery can slow the course of the disease.

Expecting this degree of medical care at a detention camp is a farce. "She has medical check-ups every two months and is prohibited from consuming salt and sugar," Amiri says, summing up the entirety of Nadia's insufficient medical treatment. He takes the little girl in his arms to show how doughy her limbs have become. Nadia's big, balmy smile dissipates; her welcoming face stiffens—she cannot stand on her feet, and everyone is staring at her. Alima Amiri gently pushes fluffy Mr. Pig to her, and her husband sits her back in the hideout of her bed. Nadia cuddles Mr. Pig and her face lights up again.