December 2, 2015 6:52 pm
Updated: December 2, 2015 8:43 pm

Businessman Frank Giustra’s new project is building a refugee centre on Lesbos

WATCH: One of Canada's wealthiest businessman, Frank Giustra, got a first look at what Syrians are facing and came up with a different plan to help.


VANCOUVER – From his perch on the top floor of a Vancouver high-rise, Frank Giustra is working through his list of contacts. He has a lot of friends in high places.

The businessman and philanthropist is pitching an ambitious plan that requires $5 million, but the money is trickling in.

“It’s slow,” says Giustra. “I didn’t think this would be an easy sell.”

Giustra is well-known in Canadian business circles, having invested in mining, Hollywood blockbusters and olive oil.

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READ MORE: Syrian refugees to boost B.C. economy by half a billion dollars: report

But, this is a new challenge for him. He wants to help the refugees arriving in Greece.

Last month, the 58-year-old got a call from a friend to see the crisis first-hand.

Just moments after he arrived on the island of Lesbos, he watched families jammed on life rafts come ashore.

“It hits you on an emotional level,” says Giustra. “I was speechless. I was standing there in shock.”

But, a pale Giustra quickly got down to the water to help women and children get out. One woman, who was carrying a wet five-month-old, simply asked for a dry diaper.

Lesbos is just 10 kilometres off the coast of Turkey and a focal point in the refugee and migrant crisis. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has recorded the arrival of approximately 434,000 people on the shores of Lesbos since the start of the year.

According to the UN, 61 per cent of the refugees and migrants arriving in Greece are Syrians fleeing the violence of the nearly five-year civil war.

READ MORE: Federal government stresses need for housing for Syrian refugees

Giustra is working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an aid organization run by former British MP David Milliband.

Kirk Day, the emergency field director with IRC, was on the ground for the organization in Lesbos this summer. He saw about 4,500 refugees arrive there each day.

He calls it a “critical juncture.”

He worries with the winter settling in, that it’ll be more dangerous for refugees arriving.

“These are human beings and they need to be treated humanely,” says Day.

Extended: Kirk Day, in a Skype interview from Belgrade, discussed the need for a refugee centre on Lesbos

Giustra’s plans to build a reception centre for refugees by the end of December.

The facility will offer overnight shelter to 1,500 people, as well as provide dry clothes, food and transportation to the refugee camps — which are located on the other side of the island.

Giustra has contributed $500,000 of his own money, so far.

“I will do more later because I think there will be [an] additional need,” he says. “This crisis isn’t going away.”

He realizes it’s going to take a lot of education and explaining to get people on board with his plan.

“How would you feel if it were your children,” muses Giustra. “Seeing it up close and personal like that would change you.”

© 2015 Shaw Media

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