Ritsona, Greece - A member of the Red Cross in Ritsona refugee camp on the 17th of October 2016. Ritsona refugee camp is located near Chalkida, approximately one hour north of Athens and is housing around 600 refugees, mainly Syrians and Kurds. Socrates Baltagiannis/ IFRC
Ritsona, Greece – A member of the Red Cross in Ritsona refugee camp, Winter 2016. Ritsona refugee camp is located near Chalkida, approximately one hour north of Athens and is housing around 600 refugees, mainly Syrians and Kurds. Photo: Socrates Baltagiannis/ IFRC

We recently met Belen, a Paediatrician working in Red Cross healthcare unit in Ritsona camp, close to Athens. Belen recently graduated and has always wanted to help in an international humanitarian role.  


Can you tell us a little about how long have you been here and what you do?


I’m the Paediatrician. I basically give health checks to children, especially new born and the younger ones. Some are chronically ill patients, but we don’t have as many now because many left. Many of the chronic children have left.  


What constitutes a chronic patient?


Epileptics, children with diabetes, this kind of diseases. Mostly I would say the main problem here is nutrition. A lot of children under five years old are malnourished.


Why is that?


It’s the food they don’t have mostly. Also, it is difficult to get children used to new flavours so there are a lot of infant children that still only drink milk.


What is being done about that?


We are working closely with another charities and (NGO) organisations.  Together we’ve developed a nutrition programme particularly focused on children under six months. We are monitoring the development of children in this programme and those that aren’t gaining weight we monitor more closely.


What are other problems in the camp?

Lack of vaccinations, which we are working on at the minute and lice! We are waiting on the vaccinations to do a mass vaccination and also on the Shampoo, so we can also do a lice dis-infestation. We had an outbreak of hepatitis A in the camps during the summer months, so we got people vaccinated, but it’s taking a long time for us to be able to update the other vaccines.     


Same for the lice shampoo, is actually proving difficult to buy the quantity that we need, but we should get it sorted soon.


How are the conditions in the camp? Can you tell us your perspective on how are people living?


I wouldn’t say they are that good, they are intense. Even though I don’t think the prefabs are the best in the world, it is something. With the tents…every time it rains the tents get flooded and there are rats and animals in the forest plus it’s difficult to maintain them. I think in another camps with prefabs, if it rains at least in doesn’t rain in the prefabs.


Nonetheless, because they aren’t as isolated they have more social support around with the neighbours and everything but in camps with prefabs you can see it’s not like that – they are more isolated because of being in the prefabs. It’s more comfortable for them but here it looks like more of a community and it’s smaller as well, so you can see people coming closer together even if they have their disagreements every so often which is normal in smaller communities.


How do you find it personally? How do you cope with conditions? And when people come and say things are terrible and they have water in their tent, how do you cope?


I feel like bureaucracy is slowing down things, I’d like things to move a bit quicker. To have the vaccinations done and the lice disinfestation done, but there are a number of road blocks that are slowing this things to get done. It’s not a good feeling because they are all the time putting some sort of pressure on us, they obviously they want the vaccinations, the lice treatment…but these things take more time than we would like.  


How has been your experience here in Ritsona so far? Is it what you imagined it to be?


It’s not normal, it’s like living two lives because you go to Chalkida and it has boats and bars and then you come here and….it makes no sense. To me this is in not possible that this is happening here in Europe with all the resources we’ve got. That’s why this should be faster and it’s not, its taking so long. So it’s not hard living conditions for me or the other staff, we go out of the camps…it’s a bit contradictory.


Was there a particular case or case you’d like to share with us?


There is a one year old baby here there is having lots of problems like breathing problems, she has been several times to the hospital. We are worried because it doesn’t look like she is going to be better and in these conditions we aren’t able to help her develop properly because she gets many infections which influences her growth and she is getting worse.  


We had also a case of two brothers one with a profound mental disability and the other was autistic. The one with the mental disability was looking after the other and although they left already, they had the interview and they left but you still wonder what will be of their lives?  


What type of activities are there in the camp?


There is an NGO that gives English lessons, math lessons; on Sundays they play music and dance. The children go over there quite a lot. It’s more like entertainment than education. Then there are things for mothers and the Red Cross are going to start doing activities like sports but it will be women from the camp going to teach each other. Some women know Arabic, knit, hairdressing so they will teach so they can learn skills for the future but also for their own motivation here in the camp because there are many depressions. Children are fine, they look after themselves, but in general adults are having a hard time, many depressions.


Please help the Red Cross to care for everyone in crisis this Christmas by donating to the Irish Red Cross Christmas Appeal www.redcross.ie/donate