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Spotlight Greece: Refugees come full circle

by Tyler Graf | Aug 12, 2016

Greece, Kathi with Mo - Laotian refugee, June 2016

Medical Teams International volunteer Kathi Karnosh with Mo, whose family migrated to the U.S. from Laos in the late '70s to escape the Khmer Rouge. The two unexpectedly met at the Athens International Airport.

The Athens International Airport terminal was bustling on a blazing-hot summer afternoon, as members of Medical Teams International's dental team awaited boarding of their New York City-bound flight. 

Sapped of energy, Kathi Karnosh, a dental hygienist from Portland, Ore., was settling in for a pre-flight nap. She and the other members of the team were returning stateside following a week in Greece, a sojourn spent treating refugees.

Before Kathi could drift away, she noticed a woman next to her. She leaned over, smiled and spoke, asking the woman if she'd been traveling through Greece. Yes, the woman replied. She was returning from a family trip with her teenage daughter.

The woman said her name was Mo.

Kathi explained that she was part of a dental team that had been traveling through the northern part of the country treating refugees who'd made the perilous trip across the Aegean Sea. She described the sad situations she encountered -- children torn from their families, parents unable to work, and medical needs going untreated.

"Oh my goodness," Mo said. "That brings back memories."

Kathi didn't know what to make of that comment. Memories of what?

"I was a refugee," Mo said.

Suddenly, Kathi perked up with a need to listen to Mo's story. This was too amazing, she thought.

And the story only grew more unbelievably poignant as it went on, drawing parallels between Kathi's own life and the work of Medical Teams International.
When Mo was 8 years old, she was living in Laos near the Cambodian border with her single mother and sister. This was during the height of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, when the genocide was in full swing. Strained by the effects of extreme poverty, Mo's family fled to a settlement in Thailand.

Thailand, Kathi thought. That was the very country in which Medical Teams began, the country where the very first team of doctors and nurses went to treat refugees, people like Mo. 

Kathi remembers being a young mother in 1979 and seeing footage of refugees fleeing to Thailand. She remembers seeing Ron Post, the founder of Medical Teams International (then known as Northwest Medical Teams), on TV taking about the situation in Cambodia and the need to care for the refugees.

Mo said the conditions in the camp were terrible. People were so sick and desperate. Her family was lucky; they made it to the Philippines before finally, amazingly, settling in the United States.

They settled in Oregon, the same state where Kathi lived. In Oregon, Mo's mom got a job as a cook. They began attending the First Christian Church, which had sponsored their move to the states.

Really? Kathi thought. That was her church. She'd attended it for years.

After a 20-minute conversation, Kathi came away amazed. This was such a serendipitous meeting. "It was total randomness," she said.

But also, maybe it meant something. How could it not? There were too many coincidences. For Kathi, it was a God thing.

"I just thought of all the people here in the Athens airport, I had this connection with this lady," Kathi said. 

The capstone comment was when Mo said what her daughter planned to study ... nursing. Perhaps, some day, she could also travel the world and help refugees, people who through no fault of their own are forced to leave their homes under threat of death.

"I am sure the people from Laos and Cambodia felt pretty hopeless too," Kathi said, recalling how fortuitous the encounter was. "I shed a tear.” 

On Aug. 6, Medical Teams International deployed its first team of primary health professionals to Greece. The doctor and nurse are providing care to refugees who have little and cannot return home.