Palos doctor returns from Syrian refugee camp in Greece: ‘The despair is so thick you can cut it with a knife’

The 2015 image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s tiny body washed ashore on the coast of Turkey made the world gasp. It put John Kahler on the path to Greece.

“Alan’s the reason I went over there in the first place,” said Kahler, a retired pediatrician who lives in Palos Park.

Alan and his older brother drowned, along with many others, while en route to the Greek island of Kos. Like thousands of refugees then and now, the boys’ family saw Greece as a stepping stone out of Syria’s civil war, a stop en route to safe haven in Europe.

Kahler initially went to the region to help children caught in the chaos.

On the third anniversary of the boy’s drowning last month, Kahler again took his medical bag back to the coast of Turkey, this time to Lesbos, a Greek island that houses what he calls a “camp of despair.”

It’s a long way from Chicago’s south suburbs to the far reaches of the Aegean Sea, but for Kahler the distance is bridged by his need to invest his golden years in helping vulnerable populations and bear witness to the world’s atrocities.

Since he retired, Kahler has traveled all over the planet, treating children for everything from diabetes and heart disease to anxiety-induced self-injury.

Although he’s seen horrific conditions in Haiti and Tanzania, his most recent visit to Moria, the large refugee camp on Lesbos, left him with nightmares.

“It probably took me two weeks to get my feet back under me after this one,” he said.

“This mission affected me unlike any of the others,” Kahler said. “And it didn’t have anything to do with the nature of the medical stuff.”

But, he added, “I can tell you I didn’t take many pictures of people smiling this time.”

Moria, he said, “was the worst physical place I’ve ever seen. There’s no hope left. They’re hopeless. The despair is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi after a number of migrants died after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum Sept. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/DHA)

“At night it’s like living in a dystopian novel. The residents are terrified,” he said. “At night, the violence begins.”

He was traveling on behalf of MedGlobal, a south suburban based international relief organization he helped found. The group, made up of doctors and medical personnel, supports nongovernmental organizations already in place around the world.

Kahler spent a month volunteering at a clinic inside Moria, a camp that began as a processing center for refugee Syrians but has since become a symbol of the world’s fast growing refugee crisis.

In addition to Syrians, the camp houses Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans and Africans from a number of countries, he said. “It’s a huge mix of different cultures, many of whom may not have liked each other from the beginning.”

With nearly 8,000 inhabitants, he said, Moria has quadrupled its capacity.

According to The Guardian newspaper, New York-based International Rescue Committee recently issued a report warning of a growing mental health crisis at Moria. It stated up to 60 percent of asylum seekers attending the mental health center there this year said they had contemplated suicide, and nearly 30 percent had attempted to take their own lives.

Kahler has devoted his life to treating kids, particularly poor kids. He worked at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and has spent the last 20 years in medical mission work in Africa, Mexico, Central America and Yemen.

In 2016, he headed back to the Middle East, specifically into the war zone of Aleppo after the last pediatrician in that Syrian city was killed.

Kahler and his colleague, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a critical care specialist at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, were among the last western doctors out of Aleppo.

But nothing, Kahler said, could prepare him for the conditions he saw at Moria.

Some 10 kilometers off the coast of Turkey, Lesbos is a beautiful island where the potent drink ouzo was invented.

In 2015, as the Syrian war escalated, and as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey began to close its borders to refugees, Lesbos became a stop on the road to Athens and then Germany, Poland or other European countries, he said.

In 2016, an agreement between the European Union and Turkey changed how migrants would be processed and, as European nations also began to close their borders to refugees, Moria went from being a stopover to representing the end of the road.

Now overrun with displaced people, the camp has become a sanitation nightmare and a realm of desperation, Kahler said.

It can take a year or more to process a refugee’s request for asylum, Kahler said. And it now takes a full-blown medical emergency to get a person off the island.

Dr. John Kahler, a retired pediatrician from Palos Park who now does humanitarian work on behalf of MedGlobal, is shown here with a patient inside the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. (John Kahler)

“The only way out is if you’ve got something we can’t deal with on the island. The biggest thing, of course, is illness,” he said.

But even emergencies aren’t necessarily handled swiftly, he said.

“The first day I got there, I saw a little girl with cyanotic congenital heart disease. She was 13, the size of a 7-year-old. She was blue,” he said. “Still, it took me 3 ½ weeks to get her off the island.”

Getting to Athens or Thessaloniki, Kahler said, “is like getting to Oz. It’s their mantra. It’s another step. Even though when they get there, their life is still gonna suck.”

The level of psycho-emotional stress, he said, “is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“This is not Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” he added. “Hyper agitation? Inability to sleep? Everybody’s got that because of the way they got there.”

What’s worse, he said, is the way they’ve ended up — without options.

“It drives the severity of the symptomatic response to stress,” he said. “If you’ve got options, things are not so severe but if you’re not on your way to anywhere and you’ve got limited resources that you’re competing for.”

Kahler added, “I didn’t have one day there that there wasn’t a significant panic/anxiety attack, where somebody was either having symptoms of a heart attack or passing out.”

One Saturday morning, the guard entered the clinic and said there was a man at the gate “acting crazy.”

“A 29-year-old Syrian man had cut himself to shreds. His chest, arms. He was laying in a pool of blood,” Kahler said. “We had to hold him down and clean his wounds. It took us 45 minutes to get him sedated.

“Every day they would bring in kids who’d cut themselves. Classic cutting to relieve anxiety,” he said. “This is what happens when you lose all hope and you’ve got so much pain inside.”

He is haunted by the case of one child in particular. If Alan Kurdi’s death prompted him to take on humanitarian work in the Middle East, it is the plight of a Palestinian boy who now keeps him up at night.

The 6-year-old, who became an elective mute after his mother was injured and his grandmother and twin were killed during a bombing in southern Syria, was brought to him with the worst case of anxiety he’d ever seen.

“He couldn’t stand to be out of the sight of his father,” Kahler said. “I told them I’d see what I could do.”

The family mistook that to mean something was going to be done immediately, he said. “They were kissing me on top of my bald head, thanking me, ‘You’re the only one who’s listened.’”

He referred the child to the camp psychologist, who, next day, told Kahler they expected to hear in October about when an appointment outside the camp might be made.

“I just started crying,” Kahler said. “This boy needed help now.”

“Much to my shame, I didn’t clarify it for (the family). I couldn’t tell them it was going to be a long time,” he said. “I still think of that kid at night.”

Kahler said it appears the civil war in Syria may soon be ending. Nobody knows what rebuilding and repatriation will look like, he said.

“What we do know is that as soon as it’s over, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are going to say we need to get these people out of here and send them back,” he said.

Syria, he said, “has a special place in my heart. That’s where I want to be when the war ends. I want to be able to go back and help these people. That’s how I want to end this last lap of my life.”

Kahler is about to turn 72. “I’m still healthy, physically and mentally,” he said. “There will come a time when I won’t be able to go. And, being a doctor, I know that can happen over night. But for right now, I’m front-loading this. My wife and kids completely accept it.”

Bearing witness and sharing testimony, he said, is as important as rolling up one’s sleeves and pitching in.

“At the end of my life, I wonder if someone will be able to say to my grandchildren, ‘Your grandfather was a good man; he gave of himself.’”

And with that, Kahler was off to pack, this time headed to a camp in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

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