Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Sunday 16 July 2023

Fifth visit to Lesvos to give acupuncture at the refugee camp


I have just returned from my fifth trip to Lesvos to give acupuncture to refugees living on the island, hosted by the wonderful local organisation Earth Medicine.

I spent three weeks there, the first two giving treatments at Earth Medicine’s container inside the refugee camp, the last one giving a few treatments and helping my hosting organisation with other tasks that needed doing. This included receiving and supporting the work of two acupuncturists from Switzerland sent by the organisations ASF and MDC to help out for two weeks.

I arrived in Mytilene on Monday 19th June, late at night. I started work at the camp the next morning, and had to get up before 7am - which would be 5am in the UK and in my body clock. Thankfully, I had my planning head on the day before and I had "practised" getting up at this time, otherwise it would have been quite a difficult task. My first day wasn’t too busy which was a blessing, I had time to adapt to the heat and the rhythm. After this, days got steadily busier and hotter.


Earth Medicine's container inside Lesvos refugee camp 



Earth medicine’s container is set slightly higher than the main part of the camp. You get a good view of the camp and the sea as well as some of the sea breeze which feels blissful when you come outside. The container is divided into three spaces, at the entrance there are some chairs which serve as reception and as space to fill in the registration form for new comers. To the right there is a room with a door which serves as the area to treat the men, to the left there is a partition that creates a room to treat the women. On the initial session, we would do a short consultation to find out about the person’s main symptoms, medical conditions, medication and the general workings of their different bodily system. This information would help me determine how best I could treat their symptoms. I had both rooms going at the same time which allowed me to treat two people per hour, although at very busy times on the second week I managed to see three per hour.


There was only one person I had met before, during my last visit six months ago. Everyone else was a new arrival, mostly from the previous 1-3 months. Because our only translators were from Afghanistan, I only treated people from this country. It seems people are still fleeing Afghanistan in droves but I was told there are also many arriving from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Palestine.


Most people came to the container for help with pain in different parts of the body. Most of them also had additional issues with digestion which included pain after eating, loss of appetite, acid reflux, constipation, and diarrhoea. There was also a lot of fear, anxiety, stress, sadness, memory loss, insomnia, and nightmares in both adults and children. As a practitioner, I have to bear in mind the importance of listening carefully to what people report about their mental and physical condition and I have to know the right questions to ask to refine my treatments. If I were to focus just on treating muscular-skeletal pain without taking into account that the person has been weakened by fear, shock and an exhausting journey as well as not being able to eat or absorb nourishment from food; I could potentially cause more harm to their system. In some cases, when a person was particularly weak, I had to tell them I would first focus on their digestive system for a few sessions to strengthen their body before properly addressing their joint or muscle pain. What often happened was that as the digestion and appetite improved, so did the physical pain which was rooted in a deep weakness rather than a purely wear-and-tear situation.


As usual, I drew from all the techniques I have learned over the years: scalp, ear and body acupuncture, massage, cupping and moxibustion as well as using the TPD heat lamps regularly. Despite the extremely hot weather, there was so much cold lodged into people’s bodies causing physical pain -a left-over of the days and nights spent hiding in cold forests and in the water during the journeys to get here- that a lot of moxa and the use of heat lamps were still necessary and an important part of treatment.


At the beginning of my stay, I could feel how everyone’s body was carrying a lot of fear, stress, and anxiety. I could only imagine this was the result of a journey full of hardships, of leaving everything familiar behind and having an uncertain future in front of them. It was not my place to ask questions about this, which could potentially have made people feel uncomfortable or even triggered in some ways. However, as everyone became more relaxed and comfortable in my presence, the stories started to flow during our sessions without me asking anything. I heard about the ordeal of a 62-year-old woman who is here with her son, and how they attempted to come from Turkey many times over several months and their boat got pushed back to Turkey eight times by the coast guard. Another woman in her 50s told us she lost her husband on the way here, he fell off the boat and drowned, nobody could help as nobody on the boat could swim. Another woman in her 40s who talked about being sad a lot, had lost one of her sons in Afghanistan and another son had stayed back because he’s a doctor and he felt obliged to stay and help. A young 16-year-old boy showed me the scar on his back which was the result of a beating he received by police in Turkey. There are so many stories of abuses by different types of authorities in the different countries people have been through, countries portrayed as “safe” by politicians and media outlets. 

I also met a 7-year-old child whose extremely sad eyes struck me, his mother said he was crying all the time and scared of playing with other children. As he waited for his treatment with one of the Swiss acupuncturists, I got some paper and pens to draw together. We drew mountains, trees, birds, and he drew his family consisting of his parents and two smaller siblings. He was loosening up and then got the black pen and filled the space at the bottom of the page with terrifying blackness. This was his depiction of the sea which he had recently crossed on a flimsy boat with his family.


Earth Medicine's staff and three visiting acupuncturists

By the time I finished giving treatments, most of the people I had started seeing during my first week were showing significant improvement. There was much reduced pain and some were even pain free, sleeping well, with stronger appetite and better digestion. In general, the experience for all of us is a type of communion created by the therapeutic space that we share. We all soften and feel at ease with each other. Beyond the treatments that we offer, it is this human touch and genuine care that makes a difference here. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to say goodbye to anyone as I succumbed to sunstroke in my last few days when the temperature rose sharply so I couldn’t make it to the camp. The camp itself is a sunstroke-inducing place where there is no shade and the white ground burns your eyes even when you are wearing sunglasses. Fortunately, acupuncture treatments continued to be available for another week after I left. It makes a big difference to have continuity of treatment and we hope there will be more practitioners hearing the call from Lesvos.



Since my return from Lesvos early this week, many people have asked me about those I was treating in Greece. Are they mostly single men? Are they thinking of coming to the UK? I am asked these questions without malice, with real concern because the powers that be have successfully implanted in our minds a stereotypical image of the “refugee” or what they call the “migrant” as a single man who comes here driven by greed or a desire to live for free. I think many people I know have similar questions so I will write about this here. All I can do is talk about the flesh-and-blood people I have met during my visits to Lesvos.

 First of all, the refugee camp in Lesvos is not inhabited solely by single men. There are people of all ages including elderly and children. There are whole families, couples with children, sometimes with one set of grandparents, or a grandparent (often a female) with their grandchildren, as well as, yes, some single men and women. Why are they coming to Europe? Because in their countries there is war, violence, famine, and like you or I, they don’t want to die or see their children die.

From what I have seen, no refugee wants to treated like a beggar, like a child, or like a victim, they are not aiming to be fed and dressed for free, and they want to be treated like human beings, with respect. Nobody I have spoken to actually wants to come to the UK. A quick Google search will show you that from the reports by different organisations, those who decide to come here do so because they already have links to this country through family or culture.

 Why are there so many single men? I have indeed met many young men in my visits to Lesvos. Some of them have fled their countries because their lives were directly in danger, like so many from Afghanistan whose work was related to the occupying forces and got  targeted by the Taliban when these forces left. Others are the only male in their family able to find a way to provide for them. The best way I can describe the situation is this: Imagine there is a huge crisis in this country, everything collapses, there is no transport, no money can be taken out of the banks, there is little food, not enough for everyone. Your family is all here, everyone wants to be safe but as there is not enough money or food something needs to be done. The only option is to go to another country but it is very dangerous. Someone needs to try first and hope to be able to find a way to send money back for food or to help other members of the family to follow safely. Who is the best person to go? The grandmother, the grandfather, the wife, the children? Logic would dictate the strongest male will be the one to take the risk as he will have the most chances to survive. I would say, ths is one of main reasons we have lone men coming from countries like Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, etc. 

 Lastly, I would add that from the conversations I have had with many people, what they mostly hope for is a possibility of rebuilding their lives, the opportunity to work, the ability to be self-reliant and provide for their families and their children. I have no answers as to how this could be achieved, this is for the citizens and politicians of all our countries to work out in open and honest conversations together. What is clear in the refugee camps in Greece, is that people are still coming and they will continue to come. No amount of ill treatment on this end is going to make someone stay in a country where their lives are endangered by war or famine.

The sunrise in Lesvos, a symbol of hope

Every time I go to Lesvos, I feel I understand a little more about what it means to be human. I am clearly shown those human qualities that many of us have forgotten while we're submerged in our rich nation comforts, qualities such as survival, courage, resilience, solidarity, perseverance, and the inextinguishable and unexplainable little flame of hope that can live inside the heart when there is nothing out there actually giving us hope.

I pray that we will have even a fraction of these qualities if we are ever in extreme situations like the ones all they people I have met in Lesvos have been through. I also pray that all our hearts will fill with compassion for all those who are suffering so close to us and that we will be moved to do what we can to help our human brothers and sisters. We live in a world which is on the brink of nuclear war, and where natural disasters are increasing in frequency and potency. It is very possible that if not us, our children and grandchildren generations will be in need of compassion and refuge. Let's plant the seeds that we would like them to harvest tomorrow.

I have deep gratitude to everyone who helped me come again and to everyone at Earth Medicine for their incredible work. Also, I want to give special thanks to Helen Kenny from Balance Healthcare for donating the needles that I used during this trip. Without everyone’s help, this work would not be possible.


With gratitude and love,


If you would like to support Earth Medicine's work please click here