The former refugee who rescued his own family on a Greek beach

On World Refugee Day, we talk to Ghias Aljundi, who fled to the UK from Syria 18 years ago. He is one of the thousands volunteering to help refugees arriving in Greece since last year. But he’d never expected that one day he’d rescue his own family from a rubber boat.

When I flew out to Lesvos, Greece [to volunteer], I had no idea my family would also be arriving on the island in a small rubber boat.

That December day was sunny, bright and freezing. It was a very difficult moment that I never wanted to happen.

Nobody wanted to leave Syria. We are from Tartus, a beautiful city on the Mediterranean coast. But I was imprisoned for four years and tortured because of my journalism and human rights work, so I fled to the UK in 1999.

My brother Safi ran a mobile phone shop in Tartus until last year, when somebody shot at it, and it became too dangerous to stay.

My nephew, Mazin, was escaping forced recruitment into the army. So they fled to Lebanon, and reached Turkey in just a few days.

Then the message came that they had paid someone to take them to Lesvos. I did my best to put them off the dangerous boat trip – I was ready to borrow money to keep them in Turkey. But their decision was different and of course I’d help them.

So I told them not to go in the night because if they had an accident they are more likely to drown; to wear a raincoat and plastic bags on their feet, and that most life jackets were fake.

Reunited after 17 years

I knew exactly where they would come in because they shared their location on WhatsApp. The trip from the Turkish coast took an hour and 50 minutes. While I waited I felt like I was somewhere else, in a bubble.

I slid down the hillside on my backside to where the waves were taking my brother’s boat. It was a very difficult place to land – my hands were full of thorns and blood.

The only person I recognised was Safi, even though we hadn’t seen each other in 18 years. My sister-in-law, Nina, was crying. She thought she had lost her baby because people had stepped on her belly in panic on the boat. My doctor colleagues checked her and found a heartbeat. I picked up so many children, including my three-year-old niece, Sirin (I didn’t know it was her until later).

We went to register them in the official camp, Moria, but it was too busy – people were sleeping outside, and it was so cold. I had to rent somewhere for my family – refugees weren’t allowed to stay in a hotel or go in a taxi. A Greek man offered them a bed for the night.

I took them for dinner then went back on the nightshift. I was in shock and unloaded boats all night.

My family travelled on to Germany and all have residency there now. They’re going to language school, waiting for a kindergarten place. The locals are very nice to them. It’s amazingly positive. My sister-in-law told me: “I feel like a human being now.” And she has given birth to a healthy baby boy.

The relief is visible as Ghias Aljundi (left, in yellow) welcomes his family after 18 years apart in Lesvos, Greece, December 2015. © Private

The hardest thing

The hardest thing about being a refugee is when people make you feel unwanted, as if you came to take their wealth. People don’t come for jobs.

Once I rescued a six-day-old baby, shaking with cold. I asked her very young mother why she came on her own. “A plane bombed us and so many people died,” she said. “So I took my baby and went on the boat, because I might survive.” Her husband disappeared when she was three months pregnant, and her relatives were killed, so what do you do?

She is my icon. She is in Sweden now, still in a camp, but she and her baby are safe. Whenever I ask her how she is, she replies: “Happy. No barrel bombs.”

So many people have told me they wouldn’t stay one day in Europe if there was a ceasefire in Syria. Fleeing is the only way to for survive.

Being welcomed makes all the difference

The situation in Greece is much worse now than when my family came over. In March, Moria became a closed detention centre because of a new agreement between the EU and Turkey, which threatens to send people back to Turkey.

People are also stuck all over mainland Greece, in terrible conditions with very little support. When I volunteered in Athens recently I saw three-day-old babies being sent back from the hospital to live in tents in the terrible heat. There’s a real sense of despair.

Volunteers and activists are making all the difference in this crisis. Ninety per cent of us pay our own expenses. I’ve never been scared, and I’ve never seen an aggressive refugee. They all know that we are helping them. When people are welcomed they feel hope – they need that more than anything. They need to feel settled, that they are not disturbing people. That gives people back their humanity and dignity.

That’s why solutions like resettlement are so important. We can’t afford to leave people to take very risky boat trips with their children, in the hands of abusive smugglers, or trapped for decades in places like Kenya or Pakistan.

For all of them, being able to travel safely and legally to a country that will protect them means giving their children a future. As a parent you wouldn’t want your children to be born in limbo – you’d want them to go to school, be safe and settled.

Protection isn’t a gift for refugees: it’s a human right. On World Refugee Day, we need to tell our governments to work together to find solutions, now.