June 12, 2020 — With the International Day of the Seafarer (June 25) nearing, recent global events have highlighted the crucial role seafarers play in the supply chain and the great challenges faced by the thousands who have been unable to return home to their families due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These realities are not lost on Mercy Ships – an international development organization operating state-of-the-art hospital ships run by skilled volunteers to deliver free world-class medical services. Several of the volunteers who serve aboard the Africa Mercy are seafarers, and among them earlier this year was Canadian Gregory Abakhan.
A decade ago, Abakhan was a busy Victoria- based small-business provider of customized clothing merchandise. Fast-forward to January 2020, where he is sporting dirty coveralls and serving aboard the world’s largest civilian hospital ship as a Lead Deckhand.
Abakhan’s journey to joining the volunteer crew of the Africa Mercy began six years earlier when the Vancouver native decided to retrain as a maritime worker and later graduated from Western Maritime Institute (2016) and the British Columbia Institute of Technology (2016). Little did he know in those days of attending classes that his newly chosen career path would eventually lead him to Sub-Saharan Africa to serve some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
Beginning in the eco-tourism industry as a Zodiac Driver and Guide, Abakhan quickly established himself as a competent maritime professional and rose the ranks, spending time as a Deckhand and Naturalist, progressing to Chief Mate and ultimately to Small Ships Master. This led to a variety of opportunities to grow in versatility, including time with the Victoria Harbour Patrol and Nanaimo Port Authority’s “Patrol Division.” A notable career highlight to date includes his role as an Adventure Guide and Bridge Watch with an Expedition Cruise company providing polar expeditions to the Canadian High Arctic, Northwestern Passages and port areas of Greenland.
So how does one go from navigating the frigid waters of the Arctic to serving aboard a civilian hospital ship in the port of Dakar, Senegal?
Finding himself between jobs, Abakhan was walking along Oak Street in Victoria, BC (where the Mercy Ships Canada National Office is located), carrying a portfolio filled with his certificates, resumes, and cover letters. ‘I originally walked right past the office, but then something prompted me to go back and pop in. I simply asked if they happened to need deck hands and it turned out there was an urgent need. I started filling out my application right then and there.’
In the midst of the Christmas holiday season, he found himself preparing to deploy for Senegal early in the New Year. ‘This opportunity was only made possible by the service-before-self approach of the team at the Victoria office in helping me coordinate my vaccinations, application, and flights during a time when businesses are closed, and people are spending time with their families.’
Although not a stranger to the world of volunteering, having served regularly at a community food bank and non-profit organization focused on poverty relief, Mercy Ships would be Abakhan’s first international volunteer experience.
In addition to employing his many maritime skills, Abakhan humbly approached his time in Senegal as one more learning occasion. ‘I saw an opportunity to gain important new skills as a fork- lift operator, crane rigger, and safety boat operator in support of maintenance and dive operations in preparation for my Coast Guard career.’
Despite having lived on a ship before, being aboard the Africa Mercy afforded Abakhan the rewarding experience of doing all aspects of daily life with people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Volunteers from more than 50 countries serve with Mercy Ships, making for a very unique living environment. Upon reflection, what he enjoyed most was ‘the comradery, friendship, and the opportunity to share knowledge and learn from others who freely gave to me what had been freely given to them. There was something special about the synergy of people who have never worked together beforegathering to achieve a common purpose, with a level of open-mindedness, acceptance, and willingness to show good will to complete strangers.’
Abakhan’s journey with Mercy Ships is really one of open-mindedness on every front. ‘Africa was a chance for me to leave the comfort zone and safety net of my BC backyard – the one that I am so familiar with – and travel continents and oceans to a place that received me warmly and introduced me to the organization that is Mercy Ships. The community immediately welcomed me with a sense of purpose and inclusion, while allowing me to see aspects of culture and a part of the world otherwise I may not have ever seen.’
He recalls one particularly impactful story: ‘One of my roles was to place the emergency gangway out early each morning. I vividly remember a blind woman who had come to the ship for cataract surgery. She had actually never used stairs before.’ In many ways, this story is a metaphor for the 5 billion people across the globe who do not have access to safe, timely, and affordable surgery (Lancet Commission on Global Surgery). They are left grasping in the dark for hope, blindly climbing a never-ending stairway to healthcare. This stark reality is why Mercy Ships exists.
And it’s not just the doctors and nurses serving on the medical side of things that are needed to change the narrative of healthcare in Africa, but those serving as deckhands, able seaman, deck officers, and marine engineers.
Mercy Ships is always looking for skilled maritime professionals to volunteer their time and talents.
Gregory Abakhan recently began a new role with the Canadian Coast Guard as a Deckhand performing spring patrols on the west coast and inland waters of coastalcommunities, as well as search and rescue. He plans to volunteer with Mercy Ships in the future.
Story by Mark Kitzman