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Student Spotlight

Read about this month’s International Studies Student Spotlight. Students were asked to share an influential experience they had that connected to their International Studies major or minor.

April 2018

Akshay Chhajed

BBA Business Administration; minors, International Studies (Thematic Emphasis: International Business, Geographic Emphasis: Western Europe) and Modern Greek Language and Culture ‘18

Hometown: Mumbai (Bombay), India

Affiliations: U-M Global Scholars Program, Ross India Conference, Michigan International Students Society (MISS), AIESEC Michigan, Eta Sigma Phi (Classics Honorary Society), European Horizons

“This past summer 2017, I had a chance to volunteer as a medical translator and cultural mediator at the Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesvos (Lesbos) in Greece, through an NGO, the Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), where I primarily employed my language skills in French, Urdu/Hindi, and Greek. I was first picked up from the small Mytilene airport and was provided accommodations in Kratigos, a nearby area to the south. After being debriefed about the translation process by the lead medical translator, who was a Moroccan student volunteer also studying in the U.S., and then completing required legal formalities, I felt more prepared but equally intimidated about what lay ahead.

Moria Refugee Camp initially stood out to me because of its partially remote location away from Mytilene, and the barbed wall that completely enclosed it. As I entered the camp on my first day with ERCI's field director on Lesvos, a few doctors, paramedics, general volunteers, and my group of translators, I noticed a motley group of refugees sprawled outside the gate leading to the ERCI triage clinic, some of whom I later learned had been waiting since before 6AM to get a chance to see a doctor that day. As I learned throughout the subsequent two weeks, these people came from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds with the majority being Arab Syrians and Iraqis, along with Congolese, followed by a mix of Kurds, Afghans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nigerians, Cameroonians, Senegalese, Guineans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and a few Indians, Iranians, Egyptians, and Nepalis whom I met. With Arabs and Sub-Saharan Africans comprising the two major refugee patient groups, there was a thin racial dynamic that all triage clinic volunteers had to maintain by allocating numbers to both races equally, or we could be abruptly accused of racism by either group.

Although I cannot disclose extensive details about any patient I met due to medical confidentiality agreements, certain individuals whom I encountered inevitably stood out to me. Some patient cases I interpreted for included a suicidal Pakistani man on my first day, a Bangladeshi man who had barely escaped execution by ISIS in Iraq, and a Francophone Congolese gay man who had been sexually assaulted by vigilante groups in the Congo. While I often handled most Urdu/Hindi speakers alongside another Indian-American volunteer doctor, my French was not advanced enough to handle cases of psychological trauma, so my Moroccan lead translator who spoke both native Maghrebi Arabic and fluent French took over for me, especially for female patients. On a more positive note, after I started translating in the clinic, I noticed a greater number of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Urdu-speaking Afghans showing up to the clinic as they began to trust me and call me directly by my name. I soon also made some friends among these patients and almost became a bit attached to some of them, yet remembering to maintain professional boundaries.

In my first week, a Cypriot-Scottish native Greek-speaking volunteer was fortunately always present to help translate referrals from the local Mytilene hospital from Greek to English or vice versa for the doctors, but after he left, I was the only Greek speaker in the clinic. While an Italian doctor could understand a little Greek, most doctors still largely relied upon me to not only translate medical documents such as blood tests and pregnancy reports from Greek into English for them, but also to interact with the Greek police officials at Moria, who often spoke only limited English. On many days, I felt extremely stressed out as I did not want to mistranslate any diagnoses and had to take extra precautions while using translation tools like Google Translate or online dictionaries to interpret medical Greek, which was also difficult to read in the doctors' handwriting. Nonetheless, I was ultimately glad to see Greek police officers becoming friendly to me by the end of my trip and most of all, the actual impact of my work on refugee patients. Despite its mix of frenetic refugee patients, tirelessly dedicated doctors, and a cacophony of Arabic, English, French, Greek, Farsi, Urdu, and Kurdish in the air, the ERCI medical clinic eventually became a haven for me from the rest of Moria.

Overall, these were some of my experiences at the Moria Refugee Camp that particularly stayed in my mind as I was departing back for Athens and then Detroit at the end August 2017. In my opinion, one of the most valuable aspects of this trip was the opportunity to interact and work alongside a group of amazingly talented volunteers from diverse countries like the U.S., UK, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, France, and Sweden, who were equally passionate about the ongoing refugee crisis in Lesvos and other global justice issues. In retrospect, I am more than glad to have undertaken this trip, as it was a once-in-a-lifetime volunteer experience and a chance to utilize all my language skills for a critical cause.”

Future plans: “As I am completing my final year as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I am largely interested in pursuing an entry role in the financial or strategy consulting industries to gain relevant experience. Since I have a strong interdisciplinary interest in the social sciences, humanities, and technology, I am also considering entrepreneurship or entrepreneurial finance/private equity focused on social impact as possible long-term options. One of my major aspirations is to engage in an international career and develop a comprehensive perspective of global business, especially across Western Europe, North America, and South/East/Southeast Asia, which I hope will also help me achieve my social impact goals in the future.”

Read about past International Studies Student Spotlights: