Stroud GP, aid worker and Refugees On Film curator Dr Richard Dean has worked in refugee camps in Calais and Greece intensively over the last 3 years. Richard shares his story of life on the ground and what led him there.
My first involvement in refugee work began in 2015 in Stroud when some locals began collecting clothes and food to the notorious jungle camp in Calais. As I was filling boxes to go into a van-load of aid I began to wonder – what was going on in Calais – and decided to head off there to see for myself.
I quickly recruited a fellow GP to go with me , a female Muslim GP from Bradford, as I was keen to start working with as wide a population of refugees as possible… and we arrived in Calais in November 2015. Calais was in turmoil… thousands of refugees from all around the world making a temporary life for themselves under constant scrutiny and harassment by the French police, under harsh conditions without any basic sanitation.
Disease was rife, infections, diarrhea, coughs and colds. Families with small children were living in abandoned spaces unsuitable for people to live.
We set up a clinic in a tent in Dunkirk in an old football field, with mud swelling around the makeshift tents and sewage running into the living areas, with huge colonies of rats feeding off any left over garbage they could find.
Most of my time there was spent ferrying food and clothing from a huge warehouse set up in Calais to collect donations. The van I used was given to me by a Bristol charity group I worked with - ABC - who I continued to work with over the years. I quickly learned that hungry and cold people get ill - and the best medicine is often good food and shelter!
From France I began trips to Greece in 2015 - the gateway for many refugees from the Middle East as they made their way from Turkey. Initially in Lesbos, where 6000 people a day were arriving in inflatable boats, I set up clinics to provide healthcare.
Eventually as more doctors arrived I realised what was needed most was someone to take on the monumental task of coordinating aid donations arriving in the Greek islands and making sure it got to the right places. So I did this as well as the medical work.
Since 2015 I have made many visits back to Greece, throughout 2016-2019, establishing medical clinics in Athens , Thessalonika and Ioannina. In 2018 I headed up an international team of doctors, nurses and therapists from the US, UK and Australia covering medical provision from the Greek islands to the mainland, using my knowledge from previous trips to get people to where they were needed most.
During these years I have met refugees from every conflict on the planet. Mostly Middle Easterners – from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. In the last year or so I have increasingly met people fleeing African conflicts, from the DRC, Cameroon etc but also from Sudan, and Eritrea. For the most part, these people faced a stark choice between staying in their countries and facing death, or leaving with the hope of starting a new life in Europe.
Their journey is one which, under the same circumstances, I too would make… as would anyone courageous enough to face the uncertainties of the smuggler routes with their own potentially fatal complications.
I have made many friends along the way, some of whom are contributing short videos for Refugees On Film. I hope to provide plenty of time for questions during the night, that can answer any queries about this crisis that has fallen on Europe the last 4 years.
REFUGEES ON FILM - Saturday 16 February, 7.30pm - Lansdown Hall