This blog set features speeches by Top 30s presented at our Magazine Launch at Bow Valley College in Calgary. In part 1, Noelle Jaipaul shared a strong message encouraging us all to reflect critically about what it means to be an ally. In this post, John Skene shares his reflections on the possibility of making connections across differences by embracing our shared humanity. Stay tuned for the third and final speech by 2016 Top 30 Fartoon Siad.
Thank you ACGC and congratulations to the other Top 30s here tonight.
I’m really honoured to be with you here, and by most measures I should not be on this stage. I struggled with many things when I was younger, including substance abuse, homelessness, and dropping out of school when I was 15.
I was incredibly lucky to have survived these circumstances I went through, and with a lot of hard work, I’ve managed to graduate college and have most recently returned from Greek refugee camps, after two trips to the country to assist in efforts there. My projects included funding and running hygiene initiatives like showers and providing toiletries to the forgotten refugees at an abandoned airport in Athens, but the majority of my time was spent working with children.
After being laid off from my 6 figure job in 2015, what seemed like a hardship actually turned out to be a life changing experience. I was given the opportunity not afforded to me throughout the beginning of my life nor through my time in college – I was given a rare opportunity to reflect on myself and the world and found myself asking, “what will you do now that you are absolutely free to choose?” I knew I wanted to take my Business education and help people struggling with homelessness and addictions. I took on volunteering positions in homeless shelters, AIDS foundations, and on a federal election campaign.
But it was a day in late 2015, after reading an article about a refugee mother who arrived on the beaches of Lesbos, Greece, that truly changed my life. The young mother, soaked wet and in shock, begged volunteers to end the life of her and her children.
I remember vividly how much this shocked me. “What had happened to her to cause her so much suffering?” and why am I so privileged to have choices that allow me to do what I want to do with my life? It was such a profound moment for me, realizing that systemic marginalization somehow meant that her life mattered less than mine, and that her suffering was somehow just a symptom of choice. In my past I had made choices that nearly killed me. This woman made no choice other than the choice for her and her children to survive.
I didn’t sleep that night and booked my flight to Greece the next morning with the last bit of saved tuition money I had, putting off continuing school without hesitation.
By Western standards I gave up a lot to be there with refugees in those camps. Money, school, work, time. But what I could have never known were the lessons and impact that my time in Greece would have on me, or my ability to bring back that experience to share with Canadians.
What I got back from helping those who need it is much more than the output required to do so. One lesson I’ve taken from my experience in Greece that resonated the most is that my capacity to affect change on this planet is not restricted to a degree, wealth, status, or the opinions or intense criticism of others – the most important thing that restricts our capacity to affect change is the scope of our compassion for others who may be different from us.
The most memorable and challenging parts of my life were spent listening to, laughing with, and crying with aid workers from the world and refugees from all over the Middle East, sometimes without ever speaking a word outside of a horribly translated Google Translate image. How can we possibly think that walls and travel bans will ever separate us when by having simple interactions with people different from us can bring people together and show commonalities, and differences, that make us stronger.
Refugee camp in Gate E2, Piraeus, Greece
And the Greeks who arrived on the islands and in the Port of Piraeus by the thousands to offer whatever they could. Sure, the refugees faced persecution from the fringes of Greek society, but a large section of Greece has remained open and helpful, due in large part to their history of being displaced people and refugees themselves. during WW2 and in island wars with Turkey. Austerity has crippled Greeks, and yet so many of them are helping. How can critics from some of the wealthiest nations in the world say that our societies cannot extend a hand to help too?
There is one story in particular I want to tell you tonight, and that is the story of my friend Ghazi. Ghazi and I bonded immediately after I met him in a transit camp on a Greek island and we spent 2 days together there. Smugglers in Turkey separated his family onto two different boats, and for 2 days I watched as his family didn’t know whether their grandmother and young daughter were alive. He was a 4 year old from Syria, fleeing war his entire life. He spoke to me in Arabic and I spoke English to him, and it didn’t matter. I brought bags of chocolates to give to kids when I would see their parents unable to console them, and Ghazi figured out exactly what to do to get chocolates, really quickly.
When I returned home, I leveraged media and was able to tell our story to Canadians to bring a real face to this crisis. My friendship with this little guy is one of my most cherished. To share the stories of people like him with Canadians and to even marginally change an otherwise restricted viewpoint, has been one of the biggest honours of my life.
Ghazi and I in late 2015
I was fortunate enough to visit Ghazi and my Syrian family in Germany last year, and I have remained in contact with him and his family, sending video messages and pictures, ever since.
Since being given the Top 30 standing I have thought a lot about whether or not I should be here. Perhaps if the designation is about being in the top, in the sense that to be in the top someone else must remain below, and in the sense that I am seen as better than someone else, I don’t feel I belong.
But if this designation is about being the best one can be, relative to one’s personal circumstances, then perhaps I might fit the bill. I am not a hero, I am a human being interested in connecting with other human beings: I do this because I have learned that extending a hand goes both ways: and it is this possibility of reciprocity that gives me hope for the world.
Read John’s Top 30 story and the entire magazine here.