Stories from a Refugee Clinic

I am sitting in a sun-filled room in Uskudar – an area of Istanbul on the Asian side of the city. I heard the Call to Prayer a half hour ago telling me that it is late afternoon and we will soon be getting ready for the evening activities.

I am tired in the best way possible.

The day began in chaos. It was the first night since arriving that I did not sleep well. Carol (my sister-in-law) and I were heading to a refugee clinic on the European side of the city and we knew we would be late. We ran to catch a ferry from Uskudar to Kabatas, and slid into seats by the window, breathless.

The morning was beautiful, partly cloudy but sun spilling through at odd moments, reflecting off a blue-gray Bosphorous Sea.

“This is a beautiful city” – the same words came to mind that I had said to myself and aloud all week. Beautiful. Breathtaking really, with Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia on a hill, the Blue Mosque back a bit creating the picture perfect sky-line that is Istanbul. And the ferry rides were perfect places to slow down and experience the view and the city.

Arriving at the dock, we headed to an underground cable car, taking it the rest of the way to Taksim. As we set off in search of the clinic, Carol remembered that Google maps doesn’t do construction. This is fact.

But no matter – we were determined. And determined won, as it usually does.

We found the building and after walking down a dark hallway, trekked 4 flights up a set of stairs. Istanbul is not a city for the short of breath.

The room we entered was full of language. Turkish, Farsi, English, Arabic – it all melded into indefinable verbs and nouns, participles and dangling. It was a gift to my ears.

One of the side rooms was designated as a nurses room and we did a quick survey of medicines and equipment. It was quick because there was none (apart from Sarah Goodwin’s 2 year expired antibiotics from Michigan). No blood pressure cuff, no stethoscope, one thermometer, and medicine that fit into one 8 by 11 plastic container.

Our first patient was an Iraqi refugee. With rusty and wanting Arabic I asked her what was wrong. I barely made out the words headache and chest pain when the interpreter came to my rescue. And the story came out. Bit by bit by bit. The head ache – but really the heartache; the chest pain – but really the stress and a heart broken. The words gave a picture of a family exiled. Refugees. Forging a new home in a new place.

What is the remedy for a broken heart? A life cracked by circumstance?

We had so little to offer. A small packet of Brufen (Ibuprophen), and encouragement to drink a lot of water, an offer to come back if the headaches worsened, if the headaches were accompanied by blurred vision or dizziness.

She was followed by more people, children and moms, more symptoms and more stories. And these were only the tip of a Titanic size iceberg of stories.

For years I have said that stories matter; stories give us a bigger picture, a narrative into which we offer our hearts. And these stories – they matter. They matter to the clinician who attempts to distinguish, with no equipment, symptoms that need physical medicine, those that need emotional, those that need both. They matter to the interpreter who skillfully takes the words and decodes them for the listener.

Most of all they matter to God; a God who needs no interpreter and no story-teller, a God who was present in the room with us, caring for all who were there. A God who gives eyes to see and ears to hear the cry of the heart.

The sun has almost set and the Call to Prayer was now over two hours ago. As I close my computer and type the last words, I whisper a prayer for the people I met, and those I never will; for stories I heard, and for the millions I will never hear.


22 thoughts on “Stories from a Refugee Clinic

  1. Marilyn thanks for sharing your travel in Istanbul (one of my favorite places in the world). It is always refreshing to sit down and read on a Monday morning and hear familiar medication names like Brufen. That is one word in my vocabulary that I continually have to remind myself isn’t used in the US.


    1. Rebecca – thanks so much for commenting. How about Paracetemol as well?? It’s so fun to come back to reading a comment like this the day after I left Istanbul and know that you know just how great the city is! Already grieving leaving and back to tragedy in Boston. Hard to negotiate these feelings.


  2. Please greet lovely Istanbul for us Marilyn. I am following your blogs and seeing all these lovely people with You in my heart and prayers…


  3. Today a friend prayed over me that Jesus would heal my broken heart. I wept. And now as I read your post I weep again and I pray that Jesus would heal the broken hearted there hidden in Istanbul.


  4. Marilyn, this post brings me to tears. It’s almost as if I’m there with you, and I hurt for these hurting people who have lost so much and who seem so lost in a world that ceases to care. I have a hard time watching the news reports from Syria, and other places where people are destroying their own country. The violence seems unending. I know God cares, and there are many out there giving what help and healing they can in His Name, but the needs are so great. Thank you – keep on reminding us, we must not ever forget how hard life is for so many.


  5. How far life has taken you since 3rd grade and East Street School! God has blessed you richly as you have given your life to others.and now share your experiences with us. Thank you, thank you!. I also need to thank your Mom for giving me this “address”. She also has blessed me over and over again.. Love you Marilyn.


    1. Hello, Sandy! So glad you are reading Marilyn’s blog posts. Call me sometime. Wish we weren’t so far away.


    2. Sandy – I love, and am honored, that you read Communicating Across Boundaries. So many fond memories of your family and dear Carin who I still think of. Love to you.


  6. Thank you for sharing this story. As an MK from Kenya, living in my native USA, I struggle everyday to try and balance the 2 things of most importance from each culture. From Kenya it is that the story is most important. If you can’t take the time to drink a cup of tea and listen to the story of the person you are with, there is no point in you being there at all. From the USA time management and efficiency are of most importance. If every moment, of everyday is not of high productive output you might as well throw in the towel. So thank you for the reminder that yes, those stories are important and it is okay to take the time to listen to them. Otherwise, I may be missing the greatest opportunities to make a difference that matters.


    1. I love this comment. There was this wonderful letter I read years ago from people living in Jordan and they talked about the need to live intentionally and flexibly. I thought of that when I read your comment. Flexibility allows us to hear the story, intentionality allows us to be purposeful. And the story helps us to live better.


  7. There is only one remedy for a broken heart … and no contrary to popular believe it is not time … it is love. Pure, simple, precious. We all have it. But only occasionally remember it.


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