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Public health grad student gets real-world experience volunteering at refugee camp

James Papadimos had been to Greece before, but he was not prepared for what would confront him when he arrived in Samos, a small island in the Aegean Sea that has become a temporary home to thousands of refugees who have fled their home countries because of war, political instability or persecution.

A master of public health student at The University of Toledo, Papadimos flew halfway across the world in August to volunteer his time and public health knowledge in one of Europe’s busiest reception centers for migrants and asylum seekers.

James Papadimos, UT master of public health student, held a baby, Amir, in Samos. He traveled to the small island in the Aegean Sea in August to help provide medical care to refugees.

“When I arrived, what I saw was surreal,” Papadimos said. “There are so many people there. The conditions were deplorable at best. It was tough to see.”

The camp at Samos functions as a receiving area where new arrivals are identified and vetted as they hope to gain asylum. But with authorities struggling to find accommodations on the Greek mainland, many refugees stay at the overcrowded camp for long periods of time.

In July, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported there were 2,600 people at Samos — the most recent figure available.

And new arrivals come daily to the island, which sits just a mile from Turkey. Samos is the second busiest receiving center among Greece’s Aegean islands this year, according to the UN. Together, all of Greece’s Aegean islands averaged nearly 900 arrivals per week from the beginning of August to mid-September, according to the UN. The refugee aid agency said Syrians and Iraqis come in the largest numbers.

As of mid-September, more than 18,000 refugees and migrants were residing on the Aegean islands, the UN said, with roughly 600 a week receiving authorization to move to the mainland.

James Papadimos took this photo of a refugee camp on Samos.

Papadimos, who did his undergraduate work at Ohio State University before returning to his hometown for his graduate education, has long focused on humanitarian issues. While at Ohio State, he formed a student organization to raise money for mosquito nets to fight malaria in Africa. At UT, Papadimos helped organize the donation of refreshed patient simulators to the University of Athens Medical School.

As he followed news of the refugee crisis, he was struck by how Greece — a country dealing with significant financial strain — had taken in so many refugees.

“When I heard about this as someone who wants to be a physician, someone who wants to care for humanity and just a proud Greek-American, I wanted to go over to help,” he said.

During his three-week stint on Samos, Papadimos helped local physician Dr. Manos Logothetis conduct medical and wellness checks and vaccinate children, as well as taught English and distributed food. But his education in public health proved crucial when an outbreak of tuberculosis and hepatitis A tore through the camp. Papadimos conducted a needs assessment and located the source of the outbreak, which was contained.

“It was firsthand experience,” he said. “You feel like you’ll never get that as a student, but I did. I got legitimate field experience, and my public health knowledge helped me tremendously. I’ve had excellent teachers here. They’re fantastic.”

Papadimos intends to apply to medical school after completing his master’s degree and continue his humanitarian work.

“That will be part of my life as a physician. I’m here to help as many people as I can,” he said. “If I’m so fortunate to be able to be a medical student, to be a physician, I’ll do all I can to give back and utilize the skills I’m taught to help people.”