A volunteer who witnessed both the squalor of the refugee camps and the warmth of their inhabitants during a trip to the Balkans in the summer has thanked Derry for its endless generosity as he prepares to send another 40 foot truck load of food aid to Athens .
Sean Gallagher said St Vincent de Paul, for whom he drives a van, stepped up its Syrian aid after the world was shocked into action by the image of little Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Lesbos beach last year.
“When that little kid was washed up in Lesbos, the world woke up,” he said.
Fundraising efforts in the North soon saw the charity fill ten 40 foot containers with food and clothing. When the last truck was full, Sean went with it.
Although accustomed to the images of horror broadcast, first from Syria and later from the Mediterranean over the past five years, he wasn’t quite prepared for what he encountered.
“It was just a shock. These tents were pitched on hardcore and the only thing between them and the hardcore was a ground sheet.
“This is in 2016. It’s crazy.
“They had no running water. There was a big stream out the back and they used to swim and bath in that. Anything they had they depended on us to give them.
“The toilets were all these portacabins and you wouldn’t use the toilets but they had to.
“There were no schools for children, no toys, nothing.”
Mr Gallagher said that despite the injustice and hardship the families had lost none of their famous Arab hospitality.
“It was during Ramadan. People didn’t eat during the day. During the day they would go to the forest and bring down wood and at night time start the wee camp fires.
“You would be passing them and they wouldn’t let you pass without sharing their meal. We were brought into their tents and they offered us food, which they didn’t have much of.”
Sean said he was deeply moved although it was only later, when he was back in Derry that it truly sunk in.
“It didn’t hit me until I cam home on the Sunday and said to my wife, ‘I’d love a wee cup of tea.’ I switched on the kettle, just the simple thing of switching on a kettle, the tears were flooding out of me. That’s when I realised how lucky I was.”
Sean launched the fresh food appeal when contacted by an aid worker in Athens a few weeks after he landed back.
“Towards the end of August a girl phoned from Athens: ‘They’re living on the streets. They are starving.’ I said, ‘OK. I’ll do a food appeal. I’ll see how it goes.’”
He’s been overwhelmed by the generosity of the people of Derry and Donegal.
“Derry is unbelievable. Last night (Sunday) I was sitting in the house at 10 o’clock. A wee girl, who had met us in Sainsbury’s the day before...we were buying £500 worth of food, and buying hundreds of this and hundreds of that and she was in front of us.
“She saw us and she landed at the door with £60 worth of groceries. She was telling me her husband isn’t working and she has three children. Now, Christmas is around the corner. The generosity is unbelievable.”
The food container is being shipped on November 24 but anyone who wants to donate can still do so at several drop off points in the city.
These include: St Vincent de Paul, William Street; Max Fashion, Waterloo Street; Pilot’s Row; Cromore Pre-school centre; Waterside Women’s Centre, Chapel Road; the Holy Family Chapel; and Mr Gallagher’s home at 9 Pinetrees.