• From Rotary International News Service
On the nightly news and around her city, Dr. Pia Skarabis-Querfeld saw the refugees arriving in Berlin, Germany, after fleeing war, persecution, and poverty in their home countries.
Wanting to help, she gathered a bag of clothes to donate and headed to a nearby gym filled with refugees. What began as a single act of charity eventually evolved into an all-encompassing volunteer project: Over the next three years, Skarabis-Querfeld would build and run a network that, at peak times, would include more than 100 volunteers helping thousands of refugees at community centers, tent camps, and other shelters across the city. Today, her nonprofit, called Medizin Hilft (Medicine Helps), continues to treat patients with nowhere else to turn.
That day she went to the gym was a few days before Christmas 2014. Skarabis-Querfeld had been busy with work and preparing for the holidays. She was looking forward to a much-needed break, and she thought clothes for the refugees would be a kind gesture befitting the spirit of the season.
When she arrived at the gymnasium to drop off her donation, she found sick children, most of them untreated because hospitals in the area were overrun. Helpers were not allowed to give out pain relievers or cough syrup due to legal constraints. All they could do was send people to the emergency room if they looked extremely ill.
Seeing this, and knowing about the treacherous journeys the refugees had just made across land and sea, Skarabis-Querfeld, who is a medical doctor and Rotarian, returned that same afternoon with medical supplies and her husband, Uwe Querfeld, who is a professor of pediatrics and also a Rotarian. The couple spent most of that holiday treating patients in the gymnasium.
“The suffering of the people, their bitter fate, it wouldn’t let go of me,” says Skarabis-Querfeld.
In 2015, the German ministry in charge of refugees received more than 1 million applications for asylum, straining the public health system.
Germany was a popular destination during the mass migration of people from Syria and other countries with conflict, in part because Chancellor Angela Merkel embraced them. Unlike some other European leaders, Merkel said it was Germany’s responsibility to help, and she called on citizens to welcome those escaping hardship elsewhere.
By 2017, the political winds had changed. Many Germans had become indifferent to or skeptical about the immigrants. The balance of power in Germany’s parliament shifted during the September election, and the country continues to grapple with the logistics and cost of helping refugees and their families.
While the politics played out at the famed Riechstag building in the heart of Berlin, Skarabis-Querfeld and other volunteers were treating patients only a few kilometers away.
“I had a young girl whose whole family was almost beaten to death because they were Christians,” says Skarabis-Querfeld, a member of the Rotary Club of Berlin-Tiergarten. “The girl began to have epilepsy after being beaten into a coma. I’m not used to seeing these kinds of scars and burns.”
In another case, Skarabis-Querfeld treated a Syrian girl named Saida who had fever and bronchitis. When the examination was almost over, Skarabis-Querfeld noticed Saida was limping. She coaxed Saida to take off her shoes and saw both feet were infected.
“I had seen a lot of children with small shoes on. Some had probably started walking in those shoes and worn them for one year,” Skarabis-Querfeld says. “The soles of both feet were infected. These are things that you just don’t forget.”
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