Two Ashlanders, Dr. Corey Kahn and nurse Louisa Reade, are currently volunteering with Project HOPE in Macedonia, daily engaging a stream of several thousand refugees from Syria and the rest of the Mideast.
Most of the refugees, no matter how sick they are, Kahn adds, want to get out of their hospital beds, stick with their group and get to Germany as fast as they can.
The two volunteered for a three-week stint in a refugee center in Gevgelija, a village at the Greek border, where 3,000 on a slow day and 15,000 on a busy day flow in after the sometimes harrowing crossing from Turkey, says Kahn, an emergency room physician with Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford. They treat about 20 people a day at the refugee center, with days lasting 12 or 13 hours.
They try to “trouble shoot” as they work with the extreme cases and determine who needs to get to the hospital. In her first days, it was a 2-year old girl with severe respiratory distress, whom they rushed to the nearby hospital, with Reade saying “please don’t die” over and over on the way.
“It was terrifying,” she says.
The child lived and Reade burst into tears, she says, not for the last time.
Many are going to Germany, some to Sweden and Finland, some don’t know where, says Kahn. Most are Syrian, some are from Iraq, Iran and Yemen.
Though stressed, says Kahn, “They’re really friendly. We get so many kisses and hugs, warmth and thankfulness. It’s such a pleasure working with them. They have a big sense of relief not being in danger. You get their feelings of hope, that they’re going to a better place.”
The Macedonian government has created an “incredibly well-oiled machine” for refugees to get to Serbia on the north, says Kahn. There are buses, trains for them — and “there’s no violence here. People are given water, food and medical care. They move through quickly.”
Kahn, a fine art painter whose works have been displayed at the Enclave Gallery in Ashland, has doctored in violent places, but in Macedonia, she feels safe and supported by the country’s ministry. “It’s a passion of mine to help people who need help” — and that’s usually outside the U.S., where there’s a shortage of doctors, she notes.
In 1995, Kahn had an experience that changed the direction of her life, according to Ted Wendel, a volunteer photojournalist at the camp blogging for www.projecthope.org. While working as a social worker in Chicago she took people to the local emergency room and she saw her future — a future that involved medicine, team work and the constant challenge of caring for people when they most needed it. After completing her ER training, she was drawn to Ashland by family ties, its small town atmosphere and the teamwork she observed in the ER at the Medical Center.
Reade, a stay-at-home mom, saw on her Facebook a posting by her friend Kahn, about going to Macedonia — and was immediately inspired to send her resume to Project Hope. With family and friends bending to make it possible, she was on a plane to Istanbul the next morning and immediately at work as the “sidekick” of Kahn.
“When I smile at people, they totally smile back,” says Reade. “Children are super playful. They make eye contact and are really cute. They’re on this long journey to the north. The boat ride to Greece is horrible. One woman was dehydrated with fever, vomiting. She had been on a boat with 80 people. It was built for 30 or 40.
“It never stops, thousands a day walking over from Greece. I don’t know how it could ever end,” says Reade. “They just keep coming, like a faucet. They don’t talk about where they’ve been or what it was like. They talk about where they’re headed.”
In the polyglot camp, she adds, it often takes a series of speakers through a chain of Farsi, Macedonian and English, for them to understand something.
She details the money challenges refugees face — about 5,000 Euro for the whole journey. A train through Macedonia is 25 Euro, with children free. A taxi is 100 Euro. The boat to Greece from Turkey is 1,500 Euro.
Reade has volunteered in Guatemala, worked at UC San Francisco in the pediatric ICU and has her graduate degree from San Francisco State University.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.