No Israeli flag hangs on the clinic in the refugee registration camp in Preševo, Serbia. But if any Middle East refugees coming in for treatment ask, they are told that the Jewish and Arab doctors and social workers are volunteers from Natan International Humanitarian Aid, an Israeli network for disaster relief.

“Members of the Natan team speak fluent or native Arabic, so no wonder why everyone wants to go there; there’s always a queue for medical treatment there,” according to a Facebook post from Info Park, which runs refugee information centers in Belgrade, Dimitrovgrad and Preševo.

In the wake of the massive stream of refugees into Europe from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict areas, Natan administrators assessed needs in Serbia – the last stop before refugees continue on to European Union countries — and decided to establish the clinic on November 20 last year. Rotations of Israeli volunteers will continue at least until the next assessment in May, Natan COO Gal Yoffe tells ISRAEL21c.

“The number of patients varies, but there are always between 50 and 190 every day,” Yoffe says. “What they need also varies. At first it was mostly infections and viruses, then cold-related injuries such as hypothermia, frostbite, fractures and sprains from slipping on ice. We also provide treatment for chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiac or kidney disease. The most frequent patients are children and pregnant women.”

Refugees lining up for treatment at the Natan clinic in Serbia. Photo via Facebook
Refugees lining up for treatment at the Natan clinic in Serbia. Photo via Facebook

Funded mainly by donations from the Jewish Disaster Response Corps and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Natan runs the only international clinic inside the registration camp. “It’s the most approachable one,” Yoffe says tactfully. “There’s also a Serbian clinic in the camp but it’s hidden between buildings and people don’t know it’s there and the treatment quality is not as good.”

As of mid-February, a crew of four was quite busy receiving and sometimes seeking out patients who can’t get there on their own. They also provide training to members of partner NGOs “on how to quickly lift the spirits of tired and traumatized people and give them a boost to continue their trip towards better life,” according to Info Park.

The Natan clinic at the refugee registration camp in Serbia is always busy. Photo via Facebook
The Natan clinic at the refugee registration camp in Serbia is always busy. Photo via Facebook

Natan’s expertise comes from its local experience and from assisting displaced persons in Nepal, Haiti, Philippines and India over the past 13 years. Two volunteers are in Nepal right now training midwives and providing sex education to teenage girls.

“We know how to give guidance on other issues such as solutions for accommodation, children’s nutrition, equipment, etc.,” says Natan field coordinator Einav Levy, who has a master’s in public health and is studying for a doctorate in medicine.

“I think our added value is not necessarily a professional medical response, but the way we know how to adapt our abilities to the needs of the area with flexibility and proactiveness,” Levy tells ISRAEL21c.

Seeing refugees as individuals

Yoffe has many medical-related stories to share – some tragic, such as the two-year-old refugee child with a heart condition who arrived at the clinic with no pulse and could not be revived. Yet it’s the personal interactions that stay with him most.

“We had a case of a deaf man who arrived at the camp with no papers, so he was in limbo; he couldn’t go back and couldn’t continue forward. He was in such despair that he tried to kill himself several times.”

Yoffe devoted a whole day to figuring out what the deaf man was trying to say. “He came from a very rural area in Afghanistan. I managed to understand through his gestures and drawings that he was telling me about his family murdered by the Taliban. One child survived and flew to Austria, and he wanted to reunite with him. So we told the police and they managed to give him papers. Then we put his story in writing so he could show it to authorities. Hopefully he arrived in Austria and found his son,” says Yoffe.

Levy says that as the Natan teams strive to treat hordes of refugees with top-notch medical care and compassion, they’ve identified a common psychological phenomenon no less important than the physical: the loss of their sense of individuality and freedom of choice.

A few days ago, he elaborates, Natan’s crew discovered that a woman used her food allowance to buy chocolates for herself and her children.

“At first I started getting angry that she spent the money on chocolate, but then I just realized that this is her way of giving something to herself in this chaos — something that will give them spiritual strength to continue. The refugees know that in any case they will receive staple food items at various stations such as soup, bread, vegetables and tuna. She will not die of starvation.”

Similarly, he witnessed a refugee asking relief workers giving out warm winter jackets if he could have one that looked different than the rest.

“Again I felt rising anger at this chutzpah, but then I realized it’s the same thing as the chocolate,” says Levy. “This was a person with no ability to differentiate himself, to express himself or choose anything but an unusual coat. And actually that is what we’re fighting for here.”

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