When Lindsey Smith ’06, MSN’15 volunteered as a nurse practitioner at the Idomeni refugee camp on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, Greece, the last thing she expected to find was kindness and generosity from families who lost everything. But she did. And this hospitality from strangers is why she is devoting her life to helping more displaced women and children.
Half of all Syrians, the majority Sunni Muslims because Islam is the official religion in Syria, are now refugees fleeing a civil war. According to the U.S. Department of State, 6.5 million are displaced inside the country and 4.6 million are forced to seek safety beyond its borders.
“Hundreds of thousands were arriving on the shores of Greece last spring, and the borders were sealed and people were stranded,” recalls Smith. “About 30,000 were waiting at this newly built military-enforced border in horrible conditions, living in tents on the dirt and on the train tracks. It was cold. It was wet, and people were burning plastic just to keep warm.”
Smith’s journey to the Greek-Macedonian border began when she joined the Syrian American Medical Society’s team after learning about them at the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. Her nursing skills came in handy while treating refugees with stroke, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, mental health concerns, burns and lost limbs. She learned how to dispense care from a van in the middle of an empty field, with no running water. “We did the best we could,” she says. “It was jungle medicine, really.”
Nonetheless, Smith found joy in the people she served. “The refugees had to stand in line two to three hours per day just to get food — a banana, an apple, a bottle of water and a sandwich — and yet, they would invite me to tea,” she says, “and they were more concerned that I was fed so I could help other people.”
Smith isn’t new to helping the stricken. After earning her bachelor’s in nursing from St. Kate’s, she landed a job in Los Angeles as director of nursing with Angeles Vista Hospice. “I fell in love with end-of-life care,” she explains, “and realized I really wanted to open a hospice that provides culturally specific care to minority groups in the United States, including Muslims, Hmong and Native Americans.”
So, she moved back to Minnesota, and returned to St. Kate’s, to further her professional goals.
Smith’s one regret after her trip to Greece was that she didn’t stay longer. “I can’t imagine losing family and friends the way some of these refugees have, and making that decision to leave my home and cross the sea. But then I think, any time you put your family in unsafe waters, you are safer than where you left.”
In September 2016, she worked at three camps in Thessaloniki and one in the mountains of northern Greece (for 1,500 Yazidis, a tribe from Iraq). She and another nurse from Minneapolis sponsored a refugee who spoke Arabic and Kurdish to translate. A result of doing this: Smith met veterinarians, engineers, doctors and a neurosurgeon among those running for their lives.
“These people are no longer refugees to me; many are my dear friends,” she says. In fact, they sent “all these wonderful messages” for her recent birthday.
Was she ever scared at the camps? “Only once,” she replies, “when the riot police came in shooting tear gas. But that could happen anywhere with 30,000 people — like at a rock concert.”
This fall, Smith plans to head to Lebanon with a medical team of her own. She is trying to connect with interested nurses, pediatricians, gynecologists and dentists. The need is huge, she notes, with one-and-a-half million refugees estimated to have entered the country. “You see the numbers on the news, and the refugee crisis seems so far away,” she says, “but once you know those people, those numbers become hopes and dreams, and stories.”
And Smith intends to help make her new friends’ hopes and dreams come true.
Photos courtesy of Lindsey Smith.