Derek and Jenny Graham
Derek and Jenny are a married couple from Ballina who have lived and volunteered in refugee camps around the world. Here is their story in their own words.
Our story, which began almost 15 years ago is maybe a bit different to others, a journey that came from perhaps elements of fate and destiny as well as personal loss that led us to a nomadic, adventurous, sometimes lonely but always fulfilling lifestyle – more than volunteering as just an “aspect” of our life. It has taken us to many countries, cultures, tastes, environments, and situations we could only ever have dreamed of or at times dreaded being in, but nonetheless, it was and still is part of our journey.
Gaza and Palestine
Our journey was originally focused on Palestine and the Gaza strip in particular, where we were part of a team to break the siege on Gaza’s naval blockade which had stood for 41 years. It led us to many sea trips to Gaza, some successful, all dangerous, and on the final ones we were attacked, kidnapped and illegally detained in prison before deportation. We were proudly part of a cargo ship and crew that departed Ireland in 2010 to bring much needed humanitarian and medical aid to Gaza but which was again, along with our fellow crews of the flotilla, violently and illegally stopped in International waters, where 10 of our comrades were murdered and where we once again were stopped in our mission and sent back.
There were more similar missions including spending 11 months in Malaysia where we offered assistance to the Perdana Global Peace Foundation on another cargo ship.
As the only Irish permanently living there at the time, we proudly flew the Irish flag and were never in doubt of the support we had from back home. Due to support received from Ireland, Malaysia, and so many more countries, colleagues, friends and family, we managed one Christmas to deliver over 2.3 million litres of clean fresh water – produced and bottled ourselves – to some of the most disadvantaged areas of the strip, and our best Christmas day was spent delivering, carrying, distributing water, and sharing a fresh sip with the people whose water had been 95% undrinkable for years.
During the war on Gaza in 2014, we also successfully managed to get over 600,000 dollars’ worth of high-value medicines into the strip.
We lived through aggression and war, sieges, darkness, bombs, drone attacks and shootings at sea and field. We spent a lot of time with young children and their families from the Debra community, known as the ‘butterfly children’ due to a life-threatening disease that left their skin as thin as a butterfly and whose whole bodies were open sores and fused bones. We always lived with the Palestinian community itself and were cared for and loved and who we miss to this day and hope to see again one day.
Gaza had times of great joy, great tragedy, personal heartbreak, fear, and love.
We returned home to visit family in Ireland, and while we were there, the militant group ISIS overtook the Sinai desert, our only route back to Gaza. Around the same time, war and conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine and other countries caused an exodus of those seeking refuge to arrive in Europe. Once again, with the support of family and friends and comrades and colleagues around the world, we headed for Greece to offer assistance, and landed on the Island of Samos where we would end up staying for almost three years, visit other islands in the Mediterranean for shorter missions in between.
The refugee camp in Samos became home. Those seeking refuge became part of our lives, as we were the first to greet them at the port, on the beaches on the roads and we would be part of their lives for as long as we were with them in the camps, until the ferry took them to the mainlands, which was always a minimum of six months. And there were – and still are – thousands in that situation.
We gave up our home, our jobs, we lost friends but gained true friendship. We live solely off our savings and donations from supporters, we take no salary or administration costs. On paper, it may well look like we have nothing, but we truly feel we have more than so many. We have seen extremes, good and bad. Yes, we have cried, felt loss, missed out on so much of family life but we have met and loved so many, tasted the food of friendship and solidarity, felt and seen the rawness of love and respect.
To volunteer may initially mean to give up your time, but really it is a way of opening yourself up to receiving so much more than you could ever give.
A mammoth task for two people with no money and no history of drilling wells, but a belief we could do it, stubbornness and the backing of the Irish people when we asked for support meant that less than three months after we came up with the idea, we had employed local workmen, hired trucks, and equipment, installed a filtration and sanitation unit, drilled down 48 meters, hit water and installed a drinking station.
With an Irish flag proudly flying on top, even to this day, we, are providing free, fresh, clean drinking water, every day, to a village of 5,000 people in a deprived area on the border in the north of Gaza.