Volunteer Acupuncture Camp in Lesbos

Volunteer Acupuncture Camp in Lesbos

This blog was written by Sandra Arbelaez, a fully qualified Acupuncture, Chinese Herbal Medicine, Massage and Reiki practitioner who runs the Chinese Medicine Bristol clinic. Sandra recently volunteered in Lesbos with Earth Medicine. 

I have just spent over 3 weeks on the Greek island of Lesbos, offering acupuncture treatments to refugees. I wanted to do this for a long time and had planned to go in Spring 2020. The pandemic changed my plans, and when the Moria refugee camp got destroyed in a fire last September, I donated most of the funds I had collected for my trip to help refugees who had to sleep rough and had no access to food or medicines during this time. I started fundraising for my trip again this year and finally managed to get enough money to cover my flight and my stay for a few weeks.

I arrived in Lesbos very early on Wednesday 4th August, left my bag, had a shower and went straight to work. Earth Medicine, my host organisation, has premises in the centre of the island’s capital Mytilene. I was taken there and introduced to the team of helpers – also refugees and asylum seekers-, and to those who had early morning appointments.  Everything was different from what I had imagined. I had planned to conduct a pilot study using a scalp and body acupuncture protocol for PTSD, alongside giving one to one treatments. To carry out this plan, I needed a large space in which I could offer separate group treatments to men and women and I needed 10-20 women and men ready to receive 10 daily treatments exclusively for PTSD and nothing else. I imagined the space would be easily found in the actual refugee camp.

As it happened, the Kare Tepe camp where Earth Medicine was previously based, had recently been shut down without warning and none of the organisations that had been offering services within that camp for years was given a space in the larger camp – which people call Moria 2.0. I visited the camp a few times and found it desolate and the conditions inhumane. There is a blatant disregard for human rights here. There are many elderly and disabled people and small children living here in containers and tents in 40o heat, with no running water, on a ground that is made of dust and gravel and which is difficult to navigate even when you are able-bodied. The toilets are dirty and all of them seem to be up a hill, the camp is next to the sea which rather than an asset is a risk for children and a source of freezing cold gusts in winter; and there is a stinky canal running alongside people’s tents. In here, there are no communal spaces at all, no school, no playground, basically nowhere to feel human again and definitely no place where I could have given the group acupuncture treatments.

At the time of my arrival, new local coronavirus restrictions had been imposed on the refugees and they were not allowed to leave the camp after midday. In addition to this, I soon realised that even though every single person living there has experienced trauma and PTSD symptoms, their priorities were not necessarily treating their trauma symptoms but their physical pain, their digestive problems, and their neurological issues. So, I had to let go of my needs and try my best to help people with theirs. I adapted well to the heat  -which I didn’t expect!- and to working in an environment that required me to be flexible both physically and mentally.

I spent my first three days breaking the ice talking to people, listening to their stories, and giving some treatments. Most people were surprised to be offered needles as treatment and the translators were working hard to help me explain the benefits. Fortunately, Earth medicine had already printed out some information about acupuncture in Farsi and Arabic so I wasn’t starting from zero. In many cases, I negotiated putting one needle in and only use more if there was no discomfort. Everyone who tried it became a convert and, as the weeks went by, there were more and more people coming from the camp asking to receive acupuncture as they had heard how good it was from someone who had benefited from treatment. I decided not to receive anyone new in the last week so that I would have time to get some completion with the people I was already treating. Many people received daily treatments, to begin with, but as they felt better, we were able to spread out their sessions. In the three weeks I was there, I gave a total of 145 treatments to 35 people.

These are the main issues I treated:

  • Lower back pain – mostly in young men and older women- is usually caused by hard work and cold. Many young men I met had been victims of slavery and exploitation in Iran, Turkey, and Greece, made to work long hours on building sites and factories for hardly any pay. There were some victims of torture to experiencing a variety of painful conditions.
  • Shoulder and neck pain- mostly in young women – is usually caused by stress and in many cases by having worked for years as slaves in Iranian sweatshops
  • Neurological symptoms – motor and sensory impairment in some cases due to diabetes, in others from injuries, and one suffering from a stroke.
  • Anxiety and insomnia- typical PTSD symptoms caused by the lived traumas of war/violence/loss, this is exacerbated by sleeping in a tent and feeling totally vulnerable at night and by the uncertainty and the difficulty of the asylum process people have to go through
  • Digestive problems- abdominal pain, lack of appetite, and constipation were the most common

Treatments were very successful and in 90% of cases, there was a great improvement in the symptoms.  The greatest success was in pain levels and we saw faces changing from the typical chronic pain frown to smiley within a couple of days and mobility becoming increasingly easier with more treatments. Anxiety and insomnia also responded very well, greatly relieved with scalp acupuncture lines.

For detailed patient case studies, please visit Sandra’s blog to read more. 

I am planning on returning to Lesbos before the end of this year so I will start fundraising again in the next week or so. I would also like to invite other acupuncturists to volunteer in the New Year. Earth Medicine will be delighted to host more volunteers and I have been asked by them to interview potential candidates. If you are interested, please contact me directly.

I thank everyone who helped me get to Lesbos this summer, the material and moral support were overwhelming. Also, much gratitude to Balance UK and Phoenix Ltd who kindly donated needles and moxa. I have a lot of needles left in Lesbos awaiting my return so thank you so much for enabling me to help so many people!!

This article was written by Sandra Arbelaez and published by Phoenix Medical. To read Sandra’s blog, please click here.

Do you have a story to tell? Or need TCM supplies for your next adventure? We would love to get involved! Please email us at marketing@phoenixmedical.com to start inspiring others.

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