As It Happens

Volunteer who rescued refugees celebrates after being cleared of human trafficking charges

Salam Aldeen is one of five volunteer rescuers from Spain and Denmark who were cleared of human trafficking charges by a Greek court on Monday.

Salam Aldeen and 4 others from Spain and Denmark charged after rescuing refugees from the Mediterranean

Salam Aldeen carries two babies as Syrian refugees arrive on an overcrowded dinghy after crossing from Turkey to Lesbos, Greece. This photo was taken just days after he arrived on the island from Denmark in September, 2015. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

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To many, Salam Aldeen was a hero. But in Greece, his work in saving lives constituted a possible crime, for which he faced years in prison.

In 2015, Aldeen left behind his life as an entrepreneur in Denmark to help refugees cross into Europe. 

He bought a boat and put together a group of volunteers — called Team Humanity — to rescue refugees making the treacherous trip to Lesbos by sea.

Then, two years ago, he was arrested by Greek authorities — along with another Danish volunteer and three Spanish firefighters. The five volunteers were charged with smuggling and faced up to 10 years in jail.

Earlier this week, all five were cleared of their charges.

Salam Aldeen spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from Lesbos, Greece. Here is some of their conversation.

Mr. Aldeen, it has been more than two years since you have been arrested. Tell me what you're feeling like now that you have finally been acquitted.

I am relieved. Really relieved. After two years, thinking that I could get a life sentence for saving lives — it has been very hard. Not only for me, but for the people around me, my family. 

But I'm still in shock. I can't believe that I [am] free from everything.

Without all these organizations ... a lot of people would have been dead.- Salam Aldeen, Team Humanity 

When you're sitting in a court and somebody wants to give you a life sentence, there's a lot of things going on in your head.

But I had faith in Greek law and the Greek authorities. So I'm happy it went this way.

From left to right: Danish volunteers Mohammed el-Abassi and Salam Aldeen, and Spanish firefighters Manuel Blanco, Julio Latorre and Jose Enrique Rodriguez, in front of the courthouse after being acquitted on Monday. (Anthi Pazianou/AFP via Getty Images)

Your case was watched very close by other non-governmental organizations, rescue groups working in that region and elsewhere. Why do you think it got so much attention?

Everybody knew we were rescuing people. Imagine you have a person, 100 metres away from shore, drowning. You can't wait for somebody to come to help. We need to jump into the water and rescue these people. This is how humanity is.

Without all these organizations ... a lot of people would have been dead.

So everybody was afraid of what will happen to us, because if we get convicted for this — [if] we go to jail for saving lives — the humanitarian work will be in danger.

Can you tell us about the circumstances of your arrest? What happened?

On the 14th of January — between two and three o'clock in the night — we got an S.O.S. message on a WhatsApp group that there was a boat sinking somewhere in front of the airport.

We went into my boat and we went to the sea.

When we came to the sea, we couldn't see anything. It was dark, and there was no boat. 

We called the Coast Guard before we went to the sea and told them there was a boat somewhere, but we don't know where it is, but please, if you find the location of the boat, please call us back.

And then we got arrested. After seven minutes. 

Refugees and migrants approach the Greek island of Lesbos on a dinghy, after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey in December 2015. (Santi Palacios/Associated Press)

And did you know the Coast Guard officers who arrested you?

We were cooperating always with the Coast Guard. We were always talking with them.

Only 14 hours before this incident, we saved 51 people with the green light of the authorities.

They knew us. I was there from September, 2015. 

Spanish firefighter Manuel Blanco, right, hugs an acquaintance before departing from Santa Justa train station in Sevilla, southern Spain earlier this week. (Julio Muñoz/EPA-EFE)

Why do you think you were arrested?

We don't know. We don't know what happened.

What brought you there in the first place from your life back in Denmark?

It was a picture of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy. I saw it in the news. 

Two days after, I was in Lesbos. Three hours after I landed, I was saving lives. I was swimming to the boat taking people out of the water.

I saw all of these refugees, almost drowned. And I wanted to scream and cry at the same time. There was nobody to help. There were some volunteers, and that's it.

How long had you planned to stay? 

One week. I bought a ticket for one week. But I couldn't turn my back on this. I had a dead child in my hands. Many times. 

I [dug] a grave for six hours and buried four children, a mother and a father.

It's something that stays with you — it will never go out of your brain.

How is your life different from what it was before you started?

My life changed completely. I don't think I can go and work in a normal job anymore.

This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Written by Donya Ziaee and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Donya Ziaee. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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