The European Union has been dealing with a refugee crisis that shows no signs of resolution. Instead, thousands of refugees are fleeing home to escape war and violence and living out of tents in less‑than ideal conditions — a dire situation that an Olean doctor and his daughter witnessed firsthand, and have now returned home from.
“We spoke to several people and they said they would rather have died a quick death in Syria versus a slow death in Greece, and that’s what’s been happening there,” said Dr. Tahir Chauhdry of Women’s Health of Western New York.
Chauhdry and his daughter, Anisah, recently returned from a nine‑day mission to refugee camps in Thessaloniki, Greece. They traveled with the Syrian American Medical Society that brought a team of doctors, nurses and translators.
“Sometimes, it is necessary to aid the less fortunate of the world,” Chauhdry said. “Even basic needs are hard pressed for these refugees. Many of these refugees are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, etc. They have risked everything to find a better tomorrow for their families, and leaving their homes and lives because of war and violence is a tragedy in and of itself.”
Though Chauhdry is an OB‑GYN, he was able to provide all types of medical care while serving at the camps.
“I did ultrasounds, or for anybody that had any problems, something minor like a mosquito bite or something major like a fracture, abdominal pain, chest pain,” he said.
Chauhdry and his daughter volunteered at three different camps. While government provided food and some shelter, he said the conditions were less than ideal — like having 20 toilets for more than a thousand people. But he added that in non‑government camps, it’s every man or woman for themselves.
“We’ve met people who lived there for six months and every night they try to cross the border; we met one lady in her mid‑30s and when you looked at her, you would never have imagined she’d trekked almost 250 miles to Belgrade, Serbia, with a smuggler until she got caught,” Chauhdry said.
Some of the camps lacked basic necessities, like running water. Chauhdry said the people living in tents were families, many with small children and nowhere to go.
“There was this one man who said that he would rather join ISIS than stay in the camps,” said Anisah Chauhdry, a St. Bonaventure University freshman student.
Dr. Tahir Chauhdry explained that about 50,000 refugees are currently living in Greece. Six months ago, the peak refugee population was more than 200,000.
More than half of all displaced people were children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
These refugees have fled their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, according to Chauhdry. The majority of these people have left due to war, religious persecution and other atrocities. They are going to countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Greece and Italy, and most are trying to join their families.
“The trek is arduous and life‑threatening,” Chauhdry explained.
More than a million migrants and refugees have traveled from the shores of Turkey to Greek islands since early 2015, according to Associated Press reports. At the height of the refugee crisis, families crossed in dinghies and unsafe boats and continued to mainland Europe, which triggered border closures across the continent.
This harrowing journey has been successful for some. Unfortunately, the Mediterranean route has been a graveyard for many.
“The border was closed recently,” said Chauhdry, “and a lot of people were under the impression they were going to get through really quick — and the first wave of refugees did get through. Unfortunately, these people are going to be stuck for possibly months or even years.
“Providing humanitarian and medical relief is the least that Anisah, myself and all the people who have supported this mission can do. Some in spirit, others in words of encouragement, or through financial donations. We are all human. We all deserve to be treated that way.”
Chauhdry went on the mission through a medical relief organization, Syrian American Medical Society. SAMS has established clinics in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Greece. SAMS is one of many non‑government organizations, NGOs, that are working on the front lines of crisis relief to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
This was Chauhdry’s third medical mission. He belongs to a humanitarian group called Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA).
The cost of travel, lodging and any other expenses from the trip were covered by Chauhdry himself, but he has received more than $5,000 in donations from people in the community who want to help.
“I would like to thank all that have given me donations for this worthy cause, and I hope that our efforts and prayers are not in vain,” Chauhdry said. “I realize that I have more than most. We all do. Anyone of us could be in a situation where we needed any form of help. Think about it; if your family was forcibly displaced and you had to leave without anything, what would you do?”
Chauhdry believes helping these refugees was not about politics, but rather “treating people as humans.
“Most people in the world are good. We do have some that have a tendency to ruin it all. Our lives have changed via the media, horrific terrorist actions, political negative rhetoric and just plain apathy. When people just pass by a refugee camp just to take pictures for their curiosity, or when a gorilla receives more press versus the 800 migrants who had drowned last week trying to reach Sicily, we call that humanity into question.
But Chauhdry said he was heartened by the volunteers he met during his travels.
“I saw many Germans, Greeks, Spaniards, British and Americans who gave their time to help these victims. I ran into this guy with a TCU T‑shirt towards the end of my trip. I went up to him and commended his Horned Frogs for a good football season. He said that he was from Denton, Texas, and told me that he came here to see if he could be of any assistance. I met another woman from New Jersey. This was her third time in six months doing mission work. I met a German woman who just wanted to be with children — I could go on and on.”
Dr. Chauhdry noted his excitement in coming home, adding, however, that with that excitement and sense of reward was also a tinge of sadness.
“Coming home to see Shabana, Zayba, Lina and all of my friends and dearest patients at the office will be amazing,” he noted shortly before departing from Greece. “However, leaving these people in such a precarious situation is quite difficult. We all should strive to be better people by helping one another, in any way, every chance we have.”