Giving acupuncture to refugees in Lesbos

by Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez

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Written By Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez on 3rd September 2021, this is an account of her first hand experience giving acupuncture to refugees in Lesbos. All needles were gladly supplied by JCM/ Balance Healthcare for this trip. 


I have just spent over 3 weeks in the Greek island of Lesbos, offering acupuncture treatments to refugees. I wanted to do this for a long time and had planned to go in the Spring 2020. The pandemic changed my plans, and when the Moria refugee camp got destroyed in a fire last September, I donated most of the funds I had collected for my trip to help refugees who had to sleep rough and had no access to food or medicines during this time. I started fundraising for my trip again this year and finally managed to get enough money to cover my flight and my stay for a few weeks.

I arrived in Lesbos very early on Wednesday 4th August , left my bag, had a shower and went straight to work. Earth Medicine, my host organisation, has premises in the centre of the island’s capital Mytilene. I was taken there and introduced to the team of helpers – also refugees and asylum seekers-, and to those who had early morning appointments.  Everything was different from what I had imagined. I had planned to conduct a pilot study using a scalp and body acupuncture protocol for PTSD, alongside giving one to one treatments. To carry out this plan, I needed a large space in which I could offer separate group treatments to men and women and I needed 10-20 women and men ready to receive 10 daily treatments exclusively for PTSD and nothing else. I imagined the space would be easily found in the actual refugee camp.

As it happened, the Kare Tepe camp where Earth Medicine was previously based, had recently been shut down without warning and none of the organisations that had been offering services within that camp for years were given a space in the larger camp – which people call Moria 2.0. I visited the camp a few times and found it desolate and the conditions inhumane. There is blatant disregard to human rights here. There are many elderly and disabled people and small children living here in containers and tents in 40o heat, with no running water, on a ground that is made of dust and gravel and which is difficult to navigate even when you are able-bodied. The toilets are dirty and all of them seem to be up a hill, the camp is next to the sea which rather than an asset is a risk for children and a source of freezing cold gusts in winter; and there is a stinky canal running alongside people’s tents. In here, there are no communal spaces at all, no school, no playground, basically nowhere to feel human again and definitely no place where I could have given the group acupuncture treatments.

At the time of my arrival, new local coronavirus restrictions had been imposed on the refugees and they were not allowed to leave the camp after midday. In addition to this, I soon realised that even though every single person living there has experienced trauma and PTSD symptoms, their priorities were not necessarily treating their trauma symptoms but their physical pain, their digestive problems, and their neurological issues. So, I had to let go of my needs and try my best to help people with theirs. I adapted well to the heat  -which I didn't expect!- and to working in an environment that required me to be flexible both physically and mentally.


I spent my first three days breaking the ice talking to people, listening to their stories, and giving some treatments. Most people where surprised to be offered needles as treatment and the translators were working hard to help me explain the benefits. Fortunately, Earth medicine had already printed out some information about acupuncture in Farsi and Arabic so I wasn’t starting from zero. In many cases, I negotiated putting one needle in and only use more if there was no discomfort. Everyone who tried it became a convert and, as the weeks went by, there were more and more people coming from the camp asking to receive acupuncture as they had heard how good it was from someone who had benefited from treatment. I decided not to receive anyone new in the last week so that I would have time to get some completion with the people I was already treating. Many people received daily treatments to begin with but as they felt better, we were able to spread out their sessions. In the three weeks I was there, I gave a total of 145 treatments to 35 people.

These are the main issues I treated:

Lower back pain – mostly in young men and older women- usually caused by hard work and cold. Many young men I met had been victims of slavery and exploitation in Iran, Turkey, and Greece, made to work long hours on building sites and factories for hardly any pay. There were some victims of torture too experiencing a variety of painful conditions.
Shoulder and neck pain- mostly in young women – usually caused by stress and in many cases by having worked for years as slaves in Iranian sweatshops
Neurological symptoms – motor and sensory impairment in some cases due to diabetes, in others from injuries, and one from stroke.
Anxiety and insomnia- typical PTSD symptoms caused by the lived traumas of war/violence/loss, this is exacerbated by sleeping in a tent and feeling totally vulnerable at night and by the uncertainty and the difficulty of the asylum process people have to go through
Digestive problems- abdominal pain, lack of appetite, and constipation were the most common.

Treatments were very successful and in 90% of cases there was great improvement in the symptoms.  The greatest success was in pain levels and we saw faces changing from the typical chronic pain frown to smiley within a couple of days and mobility becoming increasingly easier with more treatments. Anxiety and insomnia also responded very well, greatly relieved with scalp acupuncture lines.

There were two neurological cases that needed a lot more treatment and a lot more attention than others and which made it very hard for me to leave. Treating neurological conditions is one of my passions and I have seen how scalp and body acupuncture can make a difference to people over a period of time. One of them was a 61-year-old woman from Afghanistan who had a stroke before fleeing her country and was carried by her son the whole way across the different countries until they got to Lesbos. Apart from the stroke, she was in complete shock. She responded well to treatment and became increasingly alert and present. As well as treatment, she needed a lot of attention and kindness which she will continue to receive in the Earth Medicine clinic.

The other case was this 33-year-old man:

Mr K, from Syria. Back in 2013, he worked for the Syrian government. When he refused to collaborate in the war, his house was bombed with him inside. The roof fell on his head and he had an injury that rendered him unable to use his R arm and both his legs. He lost the ability to speak too. Mr K had to flee his country in this condition with his wife or they would have been killed. He has lived in Lesbos for several years and has been coming to Earth medicine for massage and physio exercises every day for over a year. His cousin comes with him every time to help him with his exercises.

 His hard work has helped him recover his speech and he can now transfer and give steps on the remedial parallel bars, with help. When I arrived, his movements were very forceful and disorganised, he would tense his whole face and body to move one limb.

I started giving him scalp and body acupuncture from my second day in Lesbos. I used the motor lines and the foot sensory and motor lines on the scalp; and treated the Shaoyang and Yangming channels on the R arm and both legs. After 5 treatments, we started to do exercises with the legs and arm while still having the scalp needles in. As the days went, these exercises became easier and he started to disassociate the movement of his toes, feet, knees, and even his fingers. At this point, we started walking on the bars with the scalp needles, really focusing on sending the messages to the right part of the body to be moved before attempting the actual movement. We were all watching him every day and saw how his movement became much more controlled each day. He was very happy with his progress and so was I!! I gave him instructions to massage the motor and foot lines on the scalp and to continue working in the way we were doing. I am hoping that he will continue getting better. Mr K has a wife and two small children, they all live in the refugee camp and face the difficulties that this involves every day. According to different human rights conventions, vulnerable people with disabilities need to be prioritised for asylum. Nevertheless, this family has been refused asylum 3 times by the Greek government. This is a massive source of stress that curtails Mr K’s progress as well as making you think, what is happening to our humanity?


I am planning on returning to Lesbos before the end of this year so I will start fundraising again in the next week or so. I would also like to invite other acupuncturists to volunteer in the New Year. Earth Medicine will be delighted to host more volunteers and I have been asked by them to interview potential candidates. If you are interested, please contact me directly.

I thank everyone who helped me get to Lesbos this summer, the material and moral support were overwhelming. Also, much gratitude to Balance UK and Phoenix Ltd who kindly donated needles and moxa. I have a lot of needles left in Lesbos awaiting my return so thank you so much for enabling me to help so many people!!

With love and in hope for a better world for all, Sandra

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