‘Oh the places you will go – and what will you find when you get there?’ An account of nurses overcoming barriers in a refugee crisis to provide nursing care

Ms Helen Zahos1

1Dept Emergency Medicine Gold Coast Health, Southport, Australia

The year 2015 saw a mass exodus of Refugees fleeing Syria and surrounding countries; considered by many to be the largest humanitarian crisis since World War 2. Many had fled from destroyed homes, at gunpoint, with just the clothes on their backs and often their child in their arms.

As a remote and disaster area emergency nurse, with experience in refugee and asylum seeker health services on Christmas Island and Nauru, I needed to use my nursing knowledge and skills in the crisis. I spent six weeks on the Greek island of Lesvos. Some days saw arrivals of up to 5000 Refugees crossing in rubber boats. Injuries varied, but I was present for the boat accident of 28th October where 300 people were involved in one accident, and in that one night 11 children and 27 adults drowned. I then spent 6 weeks on the border of FYROM and Greece, including the first border closures and the refugee clashes with the police and army. Our health service faced unparalleled social, political and economic barriers in a tiny geographical region bombarded by need. But the team I worked with managed! Our focus during the crisis was not on the thousands of people in front of us, but rather that one person that each of us could help. Have you ever covered a person shivering cold with a warm blanket? Or held a stranger in your arms that is grieving for their child? Helped another human being, without discrimination, and without expecting anything in return? This for me is what nursing represents, and that feeling extends to my ability to apply my skills and knowledge and assist in the refugee crisis, making a difference one person at a time.

Ask yourself, as an emergency nurse, ‘What have I done about this?’


Helen is a bilingual emergency nurse at Gold Coast University Hospital. She had experience working in disaster responses such as the Philippines post typhoon Hyan  2013 and in Nepal after the Earthquake of 2015. She has worked in refugee and asylum seeker health on Christmas Island and Nauru. Nominated as Australian of the year 2017 (Qld), she is a passionate advocate for nurses making a difference to people in need.