John Deans was lying on the couch one day in 2015 when he heard an appeal on the radio for volunteers to help resettle Syrian refugees. “I’d never done anything like this,” he says. “I immediately called the 211 number, thinking I’d just help out a bit.”
John was assigned to the Bayers Lake distribution centre where citizens had donated goods for the new families. He then worked six days a week at Chocolate Lake Hotel, the temporary home for government-assisted arrivals. “I quickly realized I had skills I could employ. I took people shopping, for blood work, medical appointments, whatever was needed.”
As a father of two and grandfather of three, he especially enjoyed the children. “I got a kick out of the kids. Coming from refugee camps to stay in a hotel and have beds, and a shower or bath, was absolutely overwhelming for them.”
John’s friendship with one large Syrian family led to an ongoing relationship. He has helped them settle in Halifax and learn how to live in a country they knew nothing about. “A week doesn’t go by without talking with the family. You realize how much support is required. It evolves as you keep finding out something else can you do.”
A Montreal native, John’s career was mainly with Bell Canada in Toronto including a two-year procurement helping to modernize Saudi Arabia’s telecommunications system. He and his wife retired to Halifax in 2012. They travel extensively and John is a kayak guide. He began running in his 40s and swimming in his 50s, leading to marathons, triathlons, and Ironman competitions.
John also volunteers with ISANS English classes several times weekly. “You see them struggling with something and suddenly it clicks. It made me look at things I think are simple and appreciate that it’s really quite complicated when you are new.” And he repairs bikes on Friday evenings with the ISANS and Ecology Action Centre bicycle program. “It makes the person who donates feel good, makes me feel good, and makes the newcomer getting the bike feel good,” he says. “It’s a nice way of giving back without it costing a lot of money. And it’s fun.”
Although volunteering “just happened,” it’s been good for John. His sensitivity to immigration issues has increased, as has his patience. “They thank me a hundred times and feed me twenty! It’s not that you’re looking for it, but it makes me feel wonderful and want to slap myself on the back.
“As I said to my Syrian friend, if I don’t help you, who will? Understanding that need is the biggest change for me. As long as I can help them, I’ll help them. “