Canadians discuss volunteering on the front lines of the refugee crisis

February 5, 2016
By Neetu Garcha

LESVOS, GREECE – Several infants crying, families arriving in over-crowded inflatable boats cold, exhausted and wet.

These are some of the sights and sounds volunteers on Lesvos island say they can’t erase from their memory.

“Some days you can sort of block it out because you know that you have to go through with it, and now break down or think about what you’re feeling. You have to go help people,” says Canadian refugee aid volunteer Natalia Wozniak.

With so many refugees and migrants arriving on the Greek island, people from around the world have stationed themselves to help, including volunteer life guards working out on the water.

“We do have thermal cameras so we can spot boats from a distance but you’re not always 100 per cent sure until the boat is nearby and you can visually make out people,” says Canadian volunteer lifeguard Patrick McBride.

There are also many who are on the island welcoming, feeding and providing dry clothing for asylum seekers. A wide range of roles are being filled by small non-profits and large NGOs.

“These people are fleeing war and there’s fragmented family units because of say a loss of life or maybe the entire family couldn’t afford the trip,” says McBride.

However, even on the worst days, some refugees are sent out onto the dangerous waters.

“From what I’ve seen, these [refugees and migrants] are the doctors, the engineers, the nurses, the teachers, whatever profession, it’s those people from their respective societies,” says McBride.

Smugglers often give them a crash course on how to operate the boats and then they’re left to fend for themselves on the water, leading to some dangerous landings on the shore – for those that make it that far.

“There are rocks, many many rocks, some just below the surface and those ones, if the boat is coming in at an odd angle, it’ll flip the boat so that’s happened on certain occasions,” says McBride.

However, many volunteers say no matter what conditions they arrive in, there’s one constant: the appreciation from the refugees and migrants.

“They’re usually very positive, they’re very happy to be here and they’re very cheerful. Obviously they’re very shocked and scared but at the same time they’re very happy and grateful to all of us,” says Wozniak.

‘Life jacket graveyard’ a poignant symbol of refugee crisis

February 4, 2016
By Neetu Garcha

LESVOS, GREECE – It’s a symbol of Europe’s refugee crisis: mountains of life vests piled high at dumps on the Greek island of Lesvos.

“We’ve been using these [life jackets] so refugees can sleep on them at night as pillows, or some padding on the rocks so when the boats arrive they don’t crash into the rock and flip over,” says Dr.Alison Thompson, long-time refugee aid volunteer.

Volunteers on the island and groups from around the world have found uses for the life vests.

“As part of a Rotary International project, we will take as many of these life jackets and life buoyancy aids from Lesvos to Africa to save the lives of fishermen,” says Rotarian Adrian Brewer, who lives in England and was in Lesvos to start collecting the life vests in January.

Brewer says with permission from local government, Rotary plans to take thousands of the life vests to African countries bordering Lake Victoria, where Brewer says thousands of fishermen die every year because they can’t afford life jackets.

Before transporting them, the life jackets must be tested for safety because some are fake or have been tampered with.

“You open them up and often they’re just full of stuffing and material and paper and all sorts of things so actually when refugees get in the water, it helps them drown,” says Thompson.

In a remote part of the island, is a real graveyard, one refugee aid volunteer Muhammad Abdullah says is quickly running out of space because of the number of refugees who did not survive the perilous trip.

“A few months ago, there was a situation where there was about 50 or 60 bodies that were waiting to be buried,” says Abdullah, who works for a charity in England called Eden Care that provides support for people reaching the end of their live and need help with burial costs.

“There were no spaces for any more refugee burials.”

Abdullah volunteered in Lesvos to help with proper Islamic burials for the deceased refugees on the island.

“When I approached a young child of only 15 years of age about who was the man I had just buried, he said it was his father,” he says.

He says it’s important to respect the beliefs of those who did not survive the journey and their families.

“This is the situation of the burials, I mean they didn’t have their family to help burry, they had to rely on volunteers like myself to go and perform a right that they could have done back home in Syria.”

Meanwhile, the so-called life jacket graveyard continues to grow, serving as a symbol of those survived the journey and those who did not.

Afghan English teacher shares story of survival

February 3, 2016
By Neetu Garcha

LESVOS, GREECE – Afghan refugee Naveed Walizada looks across the Aegean Sea towards the mountains Turkey on a cold, windy and rainy January day. It was just hours after he arrived in Greece, having survived a dangerous crossing on those very waters.

“It was all scary. Horrible,” says Walizada.

He spoke to Global News shortly after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesvos in an overcrowded inflatable raft. The 24-year-old English teacher recalls the day he had to leave his family.

“My mother was crying a lot,” he says.

It was just over a month ago that he said farewell to his parents, three sisters and brother in Afghanistan.

“I had to start this journey to become a refugee to any country only because of war and Taliban […] they’re killing people,” says Walizada.

He says for several months he had heard the Taliban would kill him for teaching English.

However, he says it wasn’t until one night when he came home and his grandfather told him the Taliban was actively looking for him right then and there that he packed up his bags and left home.

He made his way through Iran, Turkey and then Greece.

“I had no other way; I had no other choice.”

Walizada says a fuel truck driver helped him escape Afghanistan and once in Iran, he and other refugees walked long distances in the snow.

“I even didn’t eat for three days. No water, no food,” he says.

Walizada says not everyone survived that part of the perilous journey.

“When I was moving from Iran to Turkey by walking 16 hours, it was so long and cold, some kids died. I saw them by my eyes, they were dead,” says Walizada.

Finally making it to Turkey, Walizada says he and fellow refugees had to rely on violent smugglers for passage to Greece.

“They just care about the money. When they see someone, they don’t see a person, they just see money. They don’t care about humanity,” says Walizada.

He didn’t think he’d survive the voyage on the inflatable raft. The dinghy was tossed by heavy waves; conditions so rough he even lost his backpack, with his passport inside, into the sea.

“The children, the women, they were screaming and they were really afraid from the water,” says Walizada.

“They pay $2,000 a head to take this treacherous journey. How bad is it that they are fleeing their countries that the water is the most safe place,” says longtime refugee aid volunteer and full-time humanitarian, Alison Thompson.

Despite his ordeal, when he landed on shore on Lesvos, his attention turned to helping others.

Instead of resting, he immediately joined volunteers to help his fellow refugees off boats, translating and assisting however he could.

“It feels really good to help, because I was in this situation too, so I can really feel for them,” says Walizada.

He stayed in Lesvos for five days before continuing his journey into his new life. Last week, he made it to Germany where he was reunited with his aunt, who fled Afghanistan a few years ago.

Refugees describe perilous journey from Turkey to Greece

February 2, 2016
By Neetu Garcha

LESVOS, GREECE – Shortly after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesvos, Ahmed Aldhab, 25, spoke to Global News about why he risked his life on an overcrowded dinghy in the middle of winter.

“I’m not thinking about risking my life, I’m thinking about starting a new life,” said Aldhab.

Civil war forced Aldhab and his family from their home in Syria. He and dozens of others travelled on a boat from Turkey to Greece, the main entry point for refugees and migrants entering Europe.

Volunteers from around the world, many working with small non-profits, greet and take care of many of those who arrive. Aldhab and other refugees say it’s much different from what they experienced in the hands of smugglers.

“Some of them paid $2,000 to get down here,” said Aldhab.

Kavin Faris Ahmed fled Iraq. Speaking through a translator shortly after arriving in Greece, he said a wound on his arm was inflicted by a smuggler in Turkey.

“Because he tried to ask them questions, because he thought that it wasn’t safe to come around here, he wanted to go back, he tried to change his mind but they hit him and said, ‘no, you have to go to the boat now,’” said the translator.

Despite the winter conditions, asylum-seekers continue to make the perilous journey to Greece.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports in January alone, more than 360 died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

In a particularly deadly final weekend of the month, more than 100 men, women and children died in the waters off Greece, Turkey and Italy.

The IOM estimates that 60 children died on the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route in the past month.

The number of asylum-seekers keeps growing: in January, more than 62,000 entered Europe through Greece, according to the IOM.

As conditions remain desperate in Syria, Alhdab predicts many more will continue making the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

“Syrians got a very hard mindset. You can’t convince them to stop crossing the water to find a job, family, good home, to find a safe home,” said Alhdab.

Alhdab has now made it to Germany where he is staying in a refugee camp; he hopes to eventually make it to Canada.

Princeton man fears for his life, says health care system has ‘failed him’

Photo courtesy: Global News

Photo credit: Global News

April 24, 2015
By Neetu Garcha

PRINCETON – A Princeton man battling cancer says the health care system is badly failing him and it’s as clear as the nose on his face.

However, Interior Health was unaware of his case until Global News told the health authority about it. Fred Cosman, 47, says he feels helpless and is in desperate need of medical care, but has been told to wait time and time again.

His problems started last December with some pain at the tip of his nose that lead him to go see his doctor in Princeton.

“They prescribed me an antibiotic and sent me home again for a week,” explains Cosman. “In that week, it ballooned even bigger.”

His caregiver, Tina Krause says it took a couple months but Cosman was finally able to see a specialist in Penticton who decided Cosman needed an immediate biopsy after just one look.

“As soon as the doctor saw it, he looked puzzled,” says Krause.

It was after the biopsy in March that he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Krause says now he needs radiation treatment for his cancer but they’re still waiting to hear when that can happen. After four months of waiting, Cosman’s nose and overall health are deteriorating.

“Now my stomach and my appetite is going,” says Cosman.

“I used to wake up in the morning and have an appetite but now I wake up with cramps and I can’t eat.”

The family is calling for change.

“The plea is to change things so people get diagnosed quicker and that they get the treatment they need as fast as possible, especially in emergency situations where things progress quickly,” says Krause.

Global News contacted Interior Health about Cosman’s condition, even sending them a photo of him. The authority says it appreciated the case being brought to their attention, and as a result will follow up with all of the agencies and practitioners involved in Cosman’s care.

“The health system relies on the clinical and medical expertise of physicians involved, who we know have the interest of the patient at heart,” reads the email statement from Interior Health. “It’s important to understand that every patient case is different and diagnoses can be difficult.”

Krause says they still haven’t heard from the B.C. Cancer Agency either, leaving Cosman and his family fearing the worst.

“I’m concerned because before it was just in the nose, now it’s swelling up to the eye, and I’m concerned that it might go into the brain and at that point I think we’ll lose our battle,” she says.

Now that Interior Health is finally aware of Cosman’s plight, his family hopes he can still win the battle against an insidious and painfully visible affliction.

In an email statement, the Ministry of Health said it can’t speak to individual cases because of personal privacy restrictions but adds the health system relies on the expertise of physicians to make the appropriate diagnosis of a patient, including the urgency of treatment.

The ministry suggests people who have complaints about their doctor should contact the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C.

For now, critical time for Cosman continues to tick away.

Kelowna mom who lost her daughter fights for end to mental health stigma

Photo credit: Global News

Photo credit: Global News

April 28, 2015
By Neetu Garcha

KELOWNA – Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent.

It happened two years ago to Michelle Evans, a Kelowna mother. Now, it’s her mission to help youth who suffer from mental health issues like her daughter did.

“My goal now is to take mental health out of the darkness. Let’s remove the stigma around mental health, let’s make it more comfortable where parents can ask questions,” she says.

March 11, 2013 is a day Evans will never forget. Her daughter Kassy took her own life at the age of 18.

“My daughter suffered with anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and anorexia,” says Evans.

Evans says she was a healthy, happy girl until about the age of 11, when she started to develop obsessive compulsive disorder.

“If you notice in [some] picture[s] we are smiling, but I am not touching her,” says Evans.

Kassy became very sensitive to germs, but it quickly escalated.

“I remember her sitting on the floor just chanting and chanting and she was naked and just kept drawing these crazy eights,” says Evans.

Eventually Kassy’s mental health became worse, progressing to an eating disorder.

“[It was a picture from] my daughter’s fifteenth birthday,” explained Evans. “She looked at herself and did not like her physical image.”

Evans and her then husband tried everything to get their daughter the help she needed, seeing several specialists and even taking her to the United States for care. She says it would only help temporarily, and there weren’t enough resources available.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says the mental health system is lacking funding.

“The mental health care burden is really 15 per cent of the health care burden in Canada and that includes addiction but it only receives about 5 per cent funding and so what we see is long wait times,” says Amanda Swoboda, Corrdinator of Community Education for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Kelowna.

That lack of resources is why Evans’ good friend, Harry Holman, a young entrepreneur from Summerland, is trying to help people, especially youth, who have mental health issues.

“All my life as far back as I can remember, I’ve had mental health issues,” says Holman. “I have obsessive compulsive disorder, I remember doing checks and my number for whatever reason has to add up to 30 for many things that I do.”

He says the hardest thing for him has been trying to talk about it.

“I have all of my friends and family, they know what I’ve gone through but no one likes to bring it up,” says Holman.

Through an online company he recently launched called Free Mind Apparel Co, Holman isn’t just encouraging people to buy clothing that reflects positive messages, but creating a place for anyone to find support.

“It’s also a forum that anybody can talk to anybody about their mental wellness,” explains Holman.

By allowing people to share one story at a time, they’re hoping to help support the mental health of youth by taking the stigma away from the conversation. Kelowna mayor Colin Basran recently signed a proclamation dubbing May 7 as Child and Youth Mental Health Awareness Day.

A few other websites you can find mental health resources are:







Unsuspecting Okanagan bride shows up to her own surprise wedding

Photo credit: Global News

Photo credit: Global News

July 18, 2015
By Neetu Garcha

ARMSTRONG – A north Okanagan bride is still trying to get over the shock of her own wedding day.

“I didn’t expect this at all,” said Joan Jong, after her surprise wedding at the Farmers’ Market in Armstrong. “I didn’t have a clue.”

Even minutes before the ceremony on Saturday, Jong had no idea it was about to take place that morning.

“Joan actually thought I would be officiating later on this evening,” says Marriage Commissioner Esther Pearson.

What made the wedding so special to those involved was the site: Jong’s grandmother helped start the long-running farmers’ market years ago, and her family has been involved with it ever since she can remember.

“When I thought I was planning a wedding for a Saturday, I thought, ‘oh I’m going to miss the Farmers’ Market’,” said Jong.

That’s why the groom decided to come up with a surprise.

Jong thought she was just dropping by the market to say hello before her wedding later in the evening.

Her friends, family and groom say spontaneity was the key to pulling it off.

“We told all of the vendors a week before and we just told my family and everyone else just a week before because we didn’t want the secret to get out,” said Jong’s niece, Asia.

She says keeping the surprise wedding a secret wasn’t easy, but it was definitely a success.

“I’m feeling so happy; this is the happiest day of my life,” says Jong.

The couple plans to spend a day at Sparkling Hills Resort on Sunday for their honeymoon.

Okanagan Western Painted Turtles threatened by non-native species

Photo credit: Justin DeMerchant

Photo credit: Justin DeMerchant

August 5, 2015
By Neetu Garcha

KELOWNA – There are thousands of Western painted turtles in the Okanagan, and one local reptile specialist is trying to raise awareness about how to protect the at-risk species.

Justin DeMerchant is working with a biology professor at UBC Okanagan to research the valley’s turtle population.

“Western Painted Turtles are by far the most common type of turtle around in the Okanagan and there are a few red-eared sliders,” says DeMerchant.

The Western Painted Turtle is indigenous to the Okanagan and is listed as ‘at-risk.’ The reptile’s threat is heightened when people release red-eared slider turtles and other non-native species into local wetlands.

READ MORE: Did you know: These 5 species could one day disappear from across Canada

 Map western painted turtle

“Red-eared sliders are not from here, they’re from Mexico,” explains DeMerchant. “They don’t do well in the wild here and it’s bad to release them; it’s bad for both the turtles to get released and for the environment.”

In Kelowna’s Rotary Marsh Park, all sorts of wildlife can be seen, such as deer, osprey and ducks. So, it might seem like a good idea to release a pet turtle into the marsh. However, DeMerchant says releasing any domesticated turtles into the wild could prove fatal for both the visitor and the native species.

“It’s possible that the turtles could carry pathogens that the native species aren’t immune to fighting off,” says DeMerchant.

His field work involves taking hundreds of photos of the turtles in public wetlands throughout the Okanagan.

READ MORE: UBC-Okanagan researcher tracking down the Western Painted Turtle

“This whole topic about turtles in general is something that has recently come to the attention of scientists,” says DeMerchant. “It would be nice to get some more scientific research about this topic to raise some awareness about it.”

And that’s what he is setting out to do. He says if you have a pet turtle and can’t keep it anymore, he suggests that you find another home for it that is not in the wild.

The Western Painted Turtles are considered an endangered species in the lower mainland.

West Kelowna couple wants justice after major water problems ruin their home

Photo credit: Global News

Photo credit: Global News

April 12, 2015
By Neetu Garcha

WEST KELOWNA – A West Kelowna couple is suing the district over major flooding problems they say have made their home a write off. Ryan Gurney and his wife have racked up enormous bills and they claim it’s the district’s fault.

“I know I’ve spent between $50,000 and $60,000 so far in the last probably 16 months trying to fix the problem myself and then there’s a lot more to go,” says Gurney, who has two young children. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg unfortunately.”

Gurney says a water main managed by the municipality caused the many floods that have made their home a write-off.

The district had until early last week to respond to the lawsuit, but the municipality filed for a 30 day extension. While the waiting game continues, Gurney says he’s hopeful for a resolution.

“I know my lawyer has been in contact with their lawyer so there’s been a lot of dialogue happening back and fourth so that just means things are happening,” says Gurney. “I don’t know if they’re good or bad things but they’re happening because the last three years things haven’t been happening so that’s good to see.”

The flooding problems started shortly after the Gurney’s moved in three years ago.

“The district told us time and time again that it was underground water flow and it was nothing to do with them and that they couldn’t help us,” says Gurney.

The issues persisted and even got worse, until last fall when the district came in to do upgrades seemingly unrelated to Gurney’s case.

“There was a broken water basin, there’s improper drainage across the street and there was indeed the broken water main once those three things were fixed all those water problems have gone away,” he says.

The Gurneys aren’t alone. Their neighbor had similar water problems, which also disappeared after the fix of the broken water main. Gurney says he’s confident there’s enough evidence to prove his case and that things will work out for he and his family.

The district was unavailable for comment Sunday.

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