Nick Roush, 66, a Germantown resident for the last 38 years, admits he spent 35 years in Philadelphia prisons, although the only thing he was guilty of was trying to rehabilitate the lives of countless inmates. A 1979 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in social work, Nick was a psychiatric social worker who finally decided to retire in September of last year. But his humanitarian instincts were still intact.
“I felt that I was satisfied every day in prison and felt I was fortunate to be able to leave there while I was still healthy and active,” Nick said in a recent interview.
When he saw the story on the news last year about the child who drowned while his family tried to escape to Greece from Syria on a rickety boat, Nick was moved to contact a non-profit, non-governmental humanitarian organization that is trying to help resettle the Syrian refugees.
A native of Milton in Northumberland County, 50 miles north of Harrisburg,
Nick was drafted into the military in 1972 but refused to go to Vietnam, instead doing two years of alternative service at a boys home in McKeesport. This experience prompted him to enroll in Penn to pursue a graduate degree in social work.
Nick’s mother’s father emigrated from Greece around 1910 and fought for the U.S. in World War 1. “He emigrated from the island of Lesbos in Greece, and we have been there numerous times and felt a part of Lesbos, long before the (Syrian refugee) crisis.”
Nick went to Lesbos (the word “lesbian” is derived from the island of Lesbos, where the lesbian poet Sappho lived in the 6th century B.C.) for the month of October, 2016, and his brother, Harry, who lives in Vermont, was with him for the last week. (His brother stayed on for one month more.) Nick went back again in April and May of this year.
“It was rather traumatic,” said Nick. “I went back with my brother and a fellow volunteer I met the first time around. About the second week we were working there, a boat capsized half-way between Turkey and Greece. It was my first experience in Lesbos with the LightHouse Refugee Relief that I was exposed to how much each person was risking to make the journey from Syria. Of 32 passengers, only four came out of the water. One of the four was a pregnant woman who gave birth the day she crossed.”
LightHouse Refugee Relief is an NGO (non-governmental organization) that had already been working on Lesbos for more than two years, when as many as 1,000 refugees came across each day. Another NGO that Nick got to know was started by a Syrian, Omar, who had swum across the strait himself. His group, Refugee Helping Refugees, also aided the refugees at landing. Mo’Chura, an Irish group, had a boat and assisted with rescues if they could intercept boats during the passage across. Doctors Without Borders also assisted.
LightHouse Refugee Relief volunteers were divided into teams of three or four. Korakas was a high lookout about 30 minutes from the harbor (Skala Sikimenia) and base camp. Nick and the volunteers would go there at 8:30 p.m. and leave at 6 a.m. the next day. Their job at Korakas was to scan the strait between Turkey and Greece, using a thermal night telescope for any dinghies, probably with refugees, or speedboats, usually smugglers. If a boat was spotted, they called LightHouse, who alerted the landing team and Coast Guard.
Or volunteers might be assigned to a landing team for a 24-hour period, 8 p.m. to 8 p.m. “If you were notified that a boat was spotted,” said Nick, “you had to get to camp in five minutes. Our job was to rescue or assist the refugees to dry land, then to provide immediate comfort — cookies, water, dry clothes and friendship. The refugees stayed at the base camp until the Greek police took them by bus to Moira, the refugee detention area.”
Other volunteer activities included: day spotting for refugee boats, cleaning up the beaches of the eco disaster from endless life jackets, boats and castoff belongings from more than 500,000 refugees who had crossed the eastern coast in the previous two years, or recycling the same debris left on the coast by the refugees into pouches, wallets, works of art, etc.
“When not scheduled for an activity,” said Nick, “we sat around the small harbor at the local two or three small restaurants, drinking and eating the freshest fish while exchanging stories with an international group of amazing people who were there volunteering for a million different reasons. But for a few brief moments it was intense and the most horrific experience, feeling the despair of the refugees who risked and at times lost their lives on the crossing.
“Most of the time was spent with incredible people, the local Greeks and the volunteers, in a place that can only be described as paradise. The satisfactions were just being there to help in any way possible. The frustration was just having to be in a situation like that and only being able to help others minimally.
“The refugees were just ordinary people, just like us. Some had traveled through horrendous circumstances to be there. I feel that I could not describe fairly the situations that they traveled through. I am still in touch with the NGO and people they serve. A large number of the refugees spoke English. This allowed them to translate for other refugees. There were volunteers who spoke Arabic and other languages that helped us when the subjects were sensitive.”
Since he has personally dealt with the Syrian refugee crisis, how does Nick feel about the Trump travel ban and refugee policy? “I feel that there is a parable for it: ‘Throwing the baby out with the bath water.’ Not all refugees are bad, and in my opinion, only a small percentage have problems. I think the U.S. should accept refugees that met the standards prior to Trump.”
What does Nick consider his greatest achievement? “Working in the prison for 35 years. Staying human and doing what was needed for people who had never had an easy life.”
Is Nick planning to go back to Lesbos to help more Syrian refugees? “Yes, but probably next year.”