Global Student Testimonials

They fled from war and landed in a new form of hell

Two donors finance nursing student’s international co-op

By Bill Ibelle, Editorial Director

The boy was just 13 years old. Alone. Surrounded by razor wire and squalor in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he lived with eight other boys in a repurposed shipping container.

Andrew Driscoll, N’ 19, takes some time off to explore the capital city of Mytilene.

He had fled the war in Afghanistan by himself because his parents could only afford to pay the smuggling fee for one person. For the next 25 days he trudged through the mountains and deserts of Iran and Turkey—only to wind up in this notorious detention center with no way to find out if his parents and 5-year-old brother were alive or dead.

“It just breaks your heart,” said Andrew Driscoll, N’19, a nursing major who met the boy in May 2018 while working with refugee children during a co-op on Lesbos. “It was hard to come back. I think about it every day. There’s a sense of guilt because I could just jump on a plane and come home, while they’re still in that horrible camp with no way to leave.”

Driscoll had spent his first two co-ops in two of the most advanced healthcare facilities in the world, Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital. He wanted his third co-op to be a global experience, caring for those who are disadvantaged.

His inspiration was a public health class taught by nursing instructor Catherine O’Connor.

“She’s a saint, and the class was amazing,” he said. “It opened my eyes to the healthcare disparities in this country.”

While the course provided the inspiration, there was still the matter of money. Driscoll still needed funding for his unpaid co-op with Iliaktida, a Greek organization that serves asylum seekers from war-ravaged places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

That’s where the two donors stepped in—a 1974 nursing graduate of Bouvé, and a parent whose daughter graduated from the program 2017. They financed the airfare, food, and, rent for Driscoll and another student who was on co-op in Costa Rica.

It was a life-altering experience for Driscoll.

The Moria refugee camp is filled with posters of people looking for loved ones they were separated from during their journey.

Iliaktida provides medical treatment at the camp and shelter for 150 unaccompanied minors in eight group homes in the capital city of Mytilene. Driscolls’s job was to help out with routine medical tasks, transportation and companionship. But he never felt like he was doing enough.

This prompted him to take the initiative by developing a class to help the caretakes of the eight refugee houses understand one of the most disturbing health issues among the refugees.

“They get to Greece and they’re finally in Europe. They’re finally safe,” explained Driscoll. “Then they see the conditions at the Moria camp and realize that people have been trapped there for years. That’s when they hit a wall. They realize that they’ve escaped hell, only to make it to a new form of hell… And then they start cutting.”

Driscoll bandaged one boy who had slashed his arm repeatedly with a piece of glass from a broken lightbulb. He soon learned that this was a fairly common, but poorly understood response to prolonged trauma and hopelessness.

“They’ve spent weeks smuggling themselves through a war zone where people were shooting at them, and many females in their group were raped,” he said. “Many of them have lost their families and they’re left in the limbo of Moria with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. A profound numbness sets in and cutting produces feeling. Even if it hurts, at least it’s something.”

Driscoll emphasized the only thing that separates us from the refuges is the luck of where we were born.

“These people are just like you and me,” he said. “I met doctors, lawyers, computer scientists, designers and more. They are families whose houses, schools and businesses have been bombed and whose neighbors have been murdered.”

As a result, they take enormous risks to reach the safety of Europe—and the short ocean passage to Lesbos is often the most dangerous part. Thousands drown every year because the inflatable rafts provided by smugglers are packed far beyond capacity.

The “lifejacket graveyard” on the island of Lesbos commemorates the thousands of refugees who have not survived the treacherous ocean passage.

There is a place on Lesbos known as The Lifejacket Graveyard, where several hills are piled with the life preservers of refugees, many of whom drown making that final passage.

“I’ve gone through that graveyard, and many of the orange lifejackets say, ‘This is not a flotation device.’ There’s a factory in Turkey that manufactures fake lifejackets that actually get heavier when they’re wet.”

The ones who do make it end up in a camp where adults live more than 20 to a shipping container, because a compound built for 2,000 now holds more than 6,000 people.

“People have to sleep on the floor,” said Driscoll. “I met one pregnant Syrian woman who slept on the hard floor of her container along with everyone else.”

Just outside the razor-wire fences of the Moria camp, new waves of refugees live in makeshift tents constructed out of scrap material.

Driscoll describes a camp where people wait in line for days to get healthcare, sewage overflows, and more than 70 people share each toilet and shower.

“Many of the women wear diapers to bed so they don’t risk getting raped on their way to the bathroom at night,” he said.

Now that he has returned to the U.S., Driscoll hopes to combine his passion for pediatric nursing with a public health component. His experience, both in the classroom and on co-op, have taught him the many ways that class, culture, and economics can affect a person’s health. He believes he can have the greatest impact on underserved populations through interventions early in life.

Whether he makes those interventions here in the U.S. or abroad, the 13-year-old boy Driscoll met on the first day he visited the Moira camp will never be far from his mind.

 

Third year Julie Dobkin is spending her days hand-feeding habituated cheetahs and tracking wild elephants. It’s not the first place you’d expect to find a cell and molecular biology major, but it’s the exact co-op experience she was looking for.

That’s because the co-op program is built for flexibility. Knowing she had up to three chances for co-op,  Dobkin went on something of a co-op safari, exploring both potential career paths while also embracing lifelong interests.

After having completed her first co-op on the structural and chemical biology team at Celgene Inc. in 2018, she felt ready for a different kind of challenge. That led her to the N/a’ankuse Wildlife Sanctuary in Windhoek, Namibia.

“I decided to apply to this co-op as an opportunity to do work that I am incredibly passionate about — wildlife conservation and research —  but don’t anticipate having the opportunity to participate in later on” she said.

Her journey to “cheetah country,” started with an expansive job search. After researching positions across Asia, Africa, and Australia, she applied to N/a’ankuse, noting the “wide variety of animals,” as well as the chance for “hands-on experiences” with the wildlife.

With over 100 animals across their facilities, Dobkin wasn’t exaggerating.

Her work week varies, depending on needs. From observational research to perimeter integrity checks, volunteers such as herself play a critical role in the care and protection of these animals. 

In most instances, she gets to work one-on-one with unique breeds across the animal kingdom. Other days involve tracking movements of game species across a large swath of preservation land. 

There’s also quite a bit of upkeep. With such a variety of animals living together, feeding times for large carnivores like lions or African wild dogs can present unique challenges. Then there are those in need special attention, like the orphaned baby baboons, who since birth have only known the care of humans.

It’s a lot to take on and supervise, but this great responsibility has also led to some incredible moments.

In addition to maintaining the reserve, Dobkin gets to travel to N/a’ankuse research sites around Namibia. There, she recalls catching a glimpse of a newborn zebra while searching for game species on horseback. On another day, she mentions the thrill of hiking one of the oldest sand dunes in the world. 

Still, the most rewarding part of her co-op was the feeling of creating real change. “My favorite part was working with people from all over the world — and getting to see the results of my contribution to the efforts being made by the N/a’ankuse wildlife sanctuary.”

Julie Dobkin pictured “babysitting” Philly, a baby orphaned baboon who is being hand raised on the sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Julie Dobkin

From a cub to adulthood, this tame male cheetah was hand raised on the Na/a’ankuse Sanctuary. Pictured here, researchers were helping to assist with the FIT (Footprint Identification Technology) project. Photo courtesy of Julie Dobkin.

Dobkin holding 3 week old meerkats, as volunteers attend to cleaning the enclosure, in addition to checking the babies’ weights. Photo courtesy of Julie Dobkin