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.