The Syrian refugee helping new arrivals in Europe


Kinan Kadouni is a 26-year-old Syrian refugee. Five years ago, he fled Syria just before the revolution broke out, finding refuge in Belgium. Now he lives in the city of Ghent, where he offers a helping hand to new arrivals from Syria. Earlier this year, he travelled to Greece alongside a Belgian couple and spent over a month on the island of Lesbos working with refugees. This experience affected him deeply. Now he dreams of just one thing: to go back to Greece and keep on helping.

"A Belgian couple found me on Facebook and told me about their plans to return to Greece to help refugees”

This summer, Kris and Rutgert vacationed on a Greek island. They were relaxing on a beach when they saw a makeshift boat arrive, filled to bursting with refugees. Kris and Rutgert tried to help the refugees as they could, but they don’t speak Arabic and the refugees didn’t speak a word of English. When they returned to Belgium, they decided they wanted to go back to Greece to keep helping but, this time, with a translator who could translate from Arabic to English.

Kris, Rutgert and Kinan took this photo upon their arrival on the island of Lesbos, in Greece. Photo: Kinan Kadoni.

They found me on Facebook and told me about their plans to go help refugees in Greece. I had learned English at the Red Cross centre in the city of Antwerp in Belgium, so I immediately agreed. I felt powerless watching the situation unfold on TV and I wanted to be involved directly.

"There are not enough NGOs in Lesbos to deal with the huge influx of refugees"

We went to the island of Lesbos. I was shocked to see how many refugees were coming. Sometimes, 7,000 people arrived in a single day. There are NGOs working on Lesbos but there are not enough to deal with the huge influx of refugees.

Kinan keeps a lookout for refugees coming by sea to the island of Lesbos. Photo: Rutgert Verhaegen

"I was kind of like a parking attendant for the refugee boats!"

There is a lot about the situation that you only learn about when you are on site. For example, when the refugees get close to the beach, they are so overjoyed that some of them jump out of the boats and into the water to get there faster. But when they do that, it can destabilise the fragile boat full of people and cause it to capsize.

My job was to call out to them and tell them where it was safest to come ashore, so that they could avoid rocky areas. I was kind of like a parking attendant for the refugee boats!

Refugees arrive on the island of Lesbos. Photo: Kinan Kadoni.

"Volunteers rent cars with their own money to spare the refugees the long walk"

Once the refugees arrive, we administer first aid. They are often frozen and soaked to the skin. Once they are wrapped up in emergency blankets, I give them advice on how to continue on with their journey. Volunteers rent cars with their own money to spare refugees the long walk to the nearest aid station.

New arrivals are given first aid on the beach in Lesbos. Photo: Rutget Verhaegen

We worked up to 20 hours a day, but each time a little kid smiled at me or thanked me, I forgot the fatigue of the long hours spent working on the beach.

"I remember one young man - he was scarcely 21, and I saw myself in him”

I remember meeting one young man, who was scarcely 21. I saw myself in him. He came to Europe alone, leaving his family behind – as I did when I came. I had to leave Syria because of problems in the army; like him, I came across the sea. He was afraid and didn’t know what to expect – he just knew that he wanted to study because he hadn’t been in school since the start of the war. I shared my own experiences with him. Since my arrival in Europe, I’ve learned so much and grown. I’m no longer the shy young man that I recognised in him. These days, I’m back in school. I have made new friends and I’m ready to give back everything that I received. I told him that the loneliness would stay with him, but that he would manage. He will learn the language of the country that he moves to and he will also learn how the new society works.

Volunteers set up this makeshift aid station under a tree in Lesbos. Here, refugees can see a doctor and pick up food and warm clothing. Photo: Kinan Kadouni.

Today, he's in Germany. He wrote to me to thank me. Now he too wants to go back to Greece to help the refugees coming in. But he has to wait until he has papers that would allow him to travel. [Editor's Note: These documents are often difficult for refugees to obtain.]

Volunteers set up this makeshift aid station under a tree in Lesbos. Here, refugees can see a doctor and pick up food and warm clothing. Photo: Kinan Kadouni.

"I open my door to refugees … even though we’ve faced intimidation by police officers”

Now I am back in Ghent, in Belgium. I open my doors to refugees – hundreds of refugees have stayed in the apartment that I share with my cousin. We cook for them and we give them shelter for a few nights if they don’t have anywhere else to go. We’ve faced intimidation from the local police – they’ve searched our apartment several times without finding anything. Even so, we keep welcoming refugees in need.

Kinan and his cousin, Iyas, prepare food for refugees traveling through Ghent.

"I feel like I belong in Lesbos, where refugees keep coming"

Since I’ve been back in Belgium, refugees continue to stream into Lesbos. I feel like I belong in Lesbos, especially because there is now a shortage of volunteers. When the EU signed an accord with Turkey, many people left because they thought the situation was going to get better. But refugees keep coming and they are taking increased risks to avoid detection. Most of them now arrive on the island at night, when the cold, the wind and the waves are worse.

I’ve decided to return to Lesbos as soon as possible so I set up a fundraising page. When I’m done with this coming trip, I’ll return to Belgium with even more stories and memories from Greece, especially of the solidarity that I see there. I think that we need these stories of hope now, more than ever.

These life jackets were abandoned by refugees after their long journey. Photo: Kinan Kadoni.