While most people use their annual leave to relax on a beach or explore new cities, Brendan Woodhouse spends his helping refugees arrive safely in Europe after fleeing their own countries.
The firefighter from Nottingham, who was a former medic in the British armed forces, has seen countless boats capsize or crash as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea.
He estimates that he has been involved in the rescue of thousands of refugees, frantically dashing to save men, women and children from drowning.
One rescue that sticks in his mind took place in December 2015. A boat travelling from north Africa had capsized with 35 men, women and children from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, on board.
Woodhouse and a group of volunteers watched the chaos unfold from a nearby lighthouse, Korakas, on the Greek island of Lesvos, and sped across the water to help.
On that day Woodhouse grabbed a baby lying face down in the water, and tried to resuscitate her while swimming back to shore. “I remember her mother praying as we worked on her to save her life,” he says. Luckily, the five-month old girl, who he later learned was called Sewin, survived.
Woodhouse is not short of stories like these: of trauma and suffering and (sometimes) a happy ending. He remembers heavily pregnant women he feared would go into labour right there on the rocks and teenage boys who told them stories of slavery and torture.
“One boy, about the age of my son, had horrific burns to his arm. When I asked what happened he told me captors had rang his mother on video call, as they poured hot oil on him, demanding a ransom. Of course she paid and the very next morning, they put him on a boat, where we found him,” he recalls.
“After he had been treated, we gave him a teddy bear sheep to cuddle, but he just put it on the floor and used it as a pillow. His torment had exhausted this brave boy. I was mortified.”
“It talked of them being cockroaches, and something we should all be afraid of...'”
Woodhouse wasn’t always so involved in refugee activism. He freely admits: ”I used to be perhaps a little influenced by what I had read in the mainstream media, it was full of stories which degraded the people,” saying, “it talked of them being cockroaches, and something we should all be afraid of.”
His change of heart started with the suspension of the Operation Mare Nostrum by the European naval fleet in October 2014 [a rescue mission to save refugees], and was compounded by the subsequent sinking of the largest ever refugee boat on the 18 April 2015. A tragedy that lead to the deaths of 700 refugees.
Then in August 2015, someone shared a Facebook post written by a woman who had visited the Calais Jungle. “Her story was compelling and utterly human. It spoke of people who welcomed her and her friends as brothers and sisters. She spoke of people who had offered her food and drinks, when she knew that they had next to nothing.
“I was appalled, and angered by what I saw to be a needless neglect of civil responsibility by our governments.”
Inspired, Woodhouse decided to use his medical skills from his deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 with the British army. By September 2015, he was in France.
Arriving in Calais, he was still anxious about what he would discover. Instead he would he was treated in “exactly the same way” described in the Facebook post. “They are just ordinary human beings like me or you, or like my kids and my parents. Anybody can become a refugee.”
After his first visit he kept returning over the next few months, going to Dunkirk and then Paris. It was only after three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was swept up on a Turkish beach that he decided he needed to go further afield.
“Aylan was not the first. He wouldn’t be the last,” said Woodhouse.
Although Woodhouse has witnessed atrocities, he says that he has learned so much from his volunteering experiences.
He says: “I have learned that mistrust can be instilled in people so easily, as it’s such a primal instinct. But most of all, I have learned that these fears are, for the most part, completely unfair, and help create a society that makes us no better than animals.
“I have learned that compassion and understanding are two of the most important traits that make us human, and that we can be better, if we just love a little more, and hate a little less.”
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