Lindsey Smith decided writing a check wouldn’t do after attending a Twin Cities fundraiser for the nonprofit Syrian American Medical Society in November.
The nurse practitioner applied to travel with one of the organization’s medical missions overseas to help some of the millions of Syrians displaced by the war in their homeland. In April, she got word: She was leaving for Greece in just more than a week.
Smith, who returned recently after roughly 10 days in Europe, says her time volunteering in a sprawling encampment near the border with Macedonia left her shaken.
“It was heartbreaking. It was rewarding. It was amazing,” said Smith, who is speaking about her experiences Thursday night in St. Paul.
Smith became passionate about the plight of Syrian refugees during recent travels across the Middle East. As a hospice nurse in the Twin Cities, she became interested in end-of-life practices in the Muslim world. A trip to find out more took her to some of Syria’s neighboring countries, where refugees from the country’s devastating five-year civil war have fled.
She wanted to help, but she wasn’t sure how. Then came the November fundraiser at a south Minneapolis church, featuring a Rochester-based Syrian-American physician and volunteer for the Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS. He spoke of his time helping volunteers at a camp in Jordan and about the perils medical professionals face inside Syria.
The event raised $11,000. Smith’s decision to join a medical mission was a surprise — and “the icing on the cake,” said Andy Berman, one of the organizers: “Here a wonderful nurse stands up and says, ‘I am going.’ ”
The April mission to the Greece-Macedonia border was the society’s first to Europe, and it was organized within weeks after Macedonia’s move to close its border to migrants headed farther west. In a widely publicized incident days before Smith left for Eastern Europe, Macedonian police used tear gas and rubber bullets to stop a group of refugees from breaching a border fence.
By the time Smith arrived, the makeshift camp had swelled to more than 12,000 people. Smith joined an international team of about a dozen volunteers, mostly medical professionals who worked out of a mobile clinic in a van. She found squalid living conditions and long lines for meager food rations.
She and her colleagues attended to colds, headaches, anxiety-induced insomnia, campfire burns and lingering symptoms from the tear gas police had used.
Even in her short time there, Smith bonded with several families. Her experience with terminally ill patients came in handy in offering support to a woman in her 60s with advanced breast cancer and to her family. Caught in the camp’s limbo, they were grappling with tough questions about where the woman might spend the end of her life.
Another Syrian family she met while helping an elderly woman who had a seizure on the edge of a fight that had broken out in the camp. Her husband and son later told Smith the woman had lost children to the war. The family insisted on treating Smith to the bread they prepared by their tent.
“It’s easy for us to say these people are so far away and so different from us, but that’s just not true,” Smith said, adding, “It was really hard to leave because you feel you haven’t done anything.”
Smith hopes to join another SAMS medical mission in the fall. She speaks at 6:30 p.m. at the Twin Cities Friends Meeting House, at 1725 Grand Av. in St. Paul.