Victoria resident John Skene and Gahzi

Helping refugees changes young man’s life

John Skene will forever remember his trip to Greece but because of one family that changed his life.

John Skene will forever remember his trip to Greece, not only because of the thousands of Syrian refugees he helped to safety, but because of one family that changed his life.

Last month, Skene, a 28-year-old Victoria resident and business student, used his tuition money to fly to Lesvos, Greece (an island in the northern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey) to help with the refugee crisis. The City of Molyvos is the initial arrival point in Europe for more than 4,000 refugees arriving by boat daily.  Then they make their way to other camps in surrounding areas.

For the last three weeks, Skene volunteered at a former night-club-turned-transit-camp just south of the city called Oxy, directing refugees, distributing food and water and making them as comfortable as possible.

People would walk for days and were often exhausted, soaked in vomit and suffering from hypothermia when they reached the camp.

“We had everything from just grateful to be alive. I had one man, I was walking him into the camp and showing him where to go and he hugged me and completely broke down. We just cried. It was a very human experience,” said Skene, adding many refugees had broken ankles from getting out of the boat onto rocky ground and one woman had a miscarriage.

“They are so grateful for just normal people helping.”

After the bombings in Paris, Skene faced backlash from people on Vancouver Island, making him question if he was doing the right thing. He received death threats and hate mail from people calling him a “disgrace to Canada” and telling him not to return to the country.

He said refugees understood how people felt about them around the world and were asking where a safe place to go was that wasn’t “racist.”

But it was one Syrian family who helped him get through the horrors and threats.

Four-year-old Gahzi and his family left Damascus three years ago and have been fleeing the war-torn city for nearly all of his life.

Gahzi, his brother, mother and father were separated from the other half of their family by human smugglers prior to coming to Greece. Gahzi had no communication with the family, but they waited for two days at the camp to see if they would eventually arrive.

For those two days, Skene’s full-time job was watching over Gahzi. They would play blocks, draw pictures and play with a ball.

“He was the life of the camp. He was just the greatest little kid. He was just getting into all kinds of trouble, just a normal four-year-old,” Skene said. “It was really moving to see a child, who has known nothing but that situation, be happy.”

Eventually a volunteer driver with the camp picked up Gahzi’s aunt, grandmother and younger sibling and reunited them with the family.

Skene said he has been in contact with the family (who are now safe in Germany) and will continue to do so the rest of his life.

He hopes to go back to Greece in March to help for another three months.

 

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Drive up voting is popular with Victoria-Swan Lake voters at the Craigflower elementary polling station. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
Drive up voting popular at Craigflower polling station in Victoria-Swan Lake

Nearly 13,000 mail-in ballots were requested in the Victoria-Swan Lake riding

Polls close at 8 p.m. in the Esquimalt-Metchosin riding. (Katherine Engqvist/News Staff)
VIDEO: Esquimalt-Metchosin candidates reflect on campaign as polls close

An estimated 12,000 mail-in ballots were requested in the Esquimalt-Metchosin riding

Oak Bay High voting station was slow and steady for the provincial election day, Oct. 24, 2020. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
Early voting reduces election day turnout in Oak Bay-Gordon Head

An estimated 15,918 mail-in ballots requested in Oak Bay-Gordon Head

This was the line-up outside Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre at around 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The short-up line speaks to the high number of votes, which have already been cast against the backdrop of COVID-19 by mail or in advanced voting. Voters, however, unanimously praised the safety measures in place, as well the convenience of the polling stations. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
‘Slow’ turnout at polls across Saanich North and the Islands

Peter Mason, district electoral officer, expects about 10,000 ballots to be cast

Barb Wright and Cynthia Vance at the District Electoral Office for the Langford-Juan de Fuca (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)
Polls now closed in Langford-Juan de Fuca

An estimated 12,120 mail-in ballots were requested in the Langford-Juan de Fuca riding

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Kale Pauls has released a report on mental health and policing in the city. (File photos)
White Rock’s top cop wants to bill local health authority for lengthy mental-health calls

‘Suggestion’ included in nine-page review calling for ‘robust’ support for healthcare-led response

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau arrives to announce her party’s election platform in New Westminster, B.C., on October 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. Green party says it’s raised nearly $835,000 in 38 days

NDP Leader John Horgan is holding his final virtual campaign event

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

The possibility of the Canadian Premier League expanding to the Fraser Valley has been floated online. (Facebook photo)
Canadian Premier League possibly eyeing Fraser Valley expansion

Soccer league looking to add ninth team to the mix, B.C. markets potentially rumoured

Most Read