Some of the refugees on the ferry to Kos in Greece

Some of the refugees on the ferry to Kos in Greece

Taking a journey to remember

Mike and Crystal Powell travel to Greece for a holiday and come away with a new understanding of the worldwide refugee crisis

Greece in October was amazing. The massive crowds from the summer had diminished down to an agreeable number. We had sunshine for most of the three weeks we were there. Another bonus for October were the great deals on hotels and in shops as it was the final month of tourist season for the year.

There was such an endless variety of things to do and see in Greece: from the beautiful marble slab road walkways with shops and tavernas in Athens to hiking through the deep canyon gorges on Crete and swimming on the south shore in the Libyan Sea. The iconic white and blue buildings of the islands corresponding to their national flag and patriotism on every corner. The endless museums and ancient ruins scattered throughout the country were astounding. The sites of the apostle Paul’s second and third mission trips that have changed the landscape forever. For me it felt like I was in the centre of civilization, where history had been made and is still being made today.

I recall talking to people before my wife and I left on this trip. Many were concerned about our travel there, with the economy and refugee situation. Social media profiling, as I call it. We didn’t see any economic or civil unrest there at all. We traveled to five islands and drove 1,000 km from Thessaloniki to Athens, zig-zagging our way through the diverse countryside, finding hidden gems along the way like the ski resort of Metsovo.

The people of Greece are so very cordial and resilient while the country continues to be surrounded by conflicts. This seems to be the way of life there. We can’t imagine having wars breaking out so close to home. The Yugoslav War was like having the state of Oregon brutally destroying each other for nine years. This conflict of the ‘90s produced 2.3 million refugees. Germany accepted the most, about 200,000, while Canada allowed just over 11,000. This sounds awfully familiar. Roughly 250,000 immigrants were welcomed into our country last year alone.

While on the Island of Kos we came face to face with the refugee crises. A couple hundred people, mostly men, are living in the tent city set up along the waterfront. These people were “economic refugees” from countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to name a few. They weren’t allowed to carry on with their travels. They were looking for a better life and some kind of work. It’s very similar to our younger men and women heading north to the oil patch. But we have the privilege here in Canada to travel hundreds of kilometers to find work.

While coming back on the ferry from Patmos to Kos with about 35 passengers on board, another wave of refugees came into our lives. The fast catamaran ferry made three stops on the way and at one stop the ship was filled with about 250 more passengers. At first I thought that they could find their own seat and I left our day packs on the seat beside me. Then I noticed that the others were doing the same thing and I felt ashamed of myself as I judged them. I removed our packs and allowed a young man to sit down beside me. The boat was full to capacity.

Aref was his name, a 26-year-old from Afghanistan. He had been traveling for just over a month with three of his friends. He told me about his last six years of horrific war in his country. I told him that our country was electing another government and he was amazed and said, “What are you doing here? You should be home voting!” Aref and these refugees are the “war refugees.” These refugees have permission to travel through the country and hope to arrive in Germany. They all had money, were polite and purchased their own tickets. They all loved Canada and wanted to come here.

I got up and walked around and talked to people. Outside on the back deck I could see some sitting in silence as they watched the ship pull farther and farther away from their homeland, family and friends. Not knowing what their future holds. All the people had just one bag each. Still others were taking selfies and enjoying the journey. I met a Somalian and Syrian family. One young man pointed at a 10-year-old girl and told me that her mother had been killed. Another man standing out back pulled his hands out of his pockets and to my shock his hands were missing. They seemed to have been cut off at the base of his wrists. It turned into quite an emotional journey for me.

We arrived in Kos at 3 p.m. and they had tickets to continue on to Athens at 7 p.m. We had a rest in our hotel and then went back with a huge watermelon, all cut up, to share with the three groups we met. These strangers had become our friends in such a short time and will be a part of our lives forever. They didn’t need the hand-out but what they needed most was to be accepted. I’m sure they have felt rejected time after time on this long journey of theirs. Even rejection from their own country. Acquiring acceptance is the greatest need for any human being.

Mike Powell is an avid traveller who lives in Coldstream.