For three weeks during the summer I volunteered with MedVint in Serbia, a charity providing healthcare to refugees making the journey to Europe. I chose this charity as I was inspired by their work when I read about them online.
Prior to going on this trip, I was apprehensive as I had read about police violence in the area and the potential dangers. I had previously volunteered with similar organisations in Piraeus, Greece and Calais, France and so had some understanding of the main issues. I was also concerned that language barriers may be an issue, particularly when talking about health conditions.
Throughout this time, we offered medical care to over 300 people – ranging from small surgical procedures such as stitching wounds to giving pain relief for injuries. The team consisted of myself (a final year medical student), a General Practitioner, a Nurse and field co-ordinator. We worked in three main areas whilst in Serbia: Sid, Serbian-Croatian border, Subodica, Serbian-Hungarian border, and the capital city, Belgrade.
Subodica had particular issues with police violence and many of the refugees chose to stay hidden– staying in tents in fields or derelict buildings far from the main roads in small groups. We were only able to reach these groups with the help of other volunteers who had GPS coordinates pinpointing the exact areas. In total there were 12 groups in the area and the conditions were harsh, with limited access to food and water in the extreme heat. Many of the refugees were under 16 and told harrowing stories from their home country and their journey so far. Many of the boys talked about ‘going to game’, the term they used for attempting to cross the border, and this provided some solace for them. However, many attempts were not successful and I vividly remember treating a group of 10-15 refugees the morning after, whereby they had police dog bites and open wounds from the police beatings they received when they were found at the border.
Similarly, Sid had its own problems particularly surrounding violence within the refugee community. The Serbian-Croatian border was perceived as less violent and hence more refugees were attempting to cross. Around 150-200 people were in this area at any one time and the volunteer community was much bigger, lots of people were working many hours to provide cooked meals and offer showering facilities for the community. In this area, we were able to set up daily clinics which coincided with the meal times.
I have learnt a great deal, particularly around providing healthcare in emergency situations. For example, many of the acutely unwell patients were reluctant to go to hospital as they were concerned about deportation and this raised issues with how to provide care. Also, whilst many of the refugees spoke English, it made me reflect on the importance of learning languages. I found this experience very rewarding and I am very grateful to the Principals Go Abroad Fund for their support.