A Tribute To John Sloan

With great sadness, we announce the death of our co-founder, John Sloan. Our thoughts are with John’s family and loved ones as this sad time. Paul Hutchings, who co-founded the charity with John back in 2016, shared this beautiful tribute.

Like most people, the first time I met John Sloan, I heard him before I saw him. That loud, sweary voice booming across a Calais warehouse became the daily soundtrack to our Refugee Support journey.

In 2015, he intended to enjoy his retirement travelling around the world but he postponed that plan to spend a month helping in Calais and the rapidly expanding jungle. The place was absolute chaos so this decisive man who had run a logistics business was critical to imposing some kind of order. We got on well and both early risers, started most mornings with coffee and cigarettes before heading into the madness of the days there.

That month in Calais became six months and then he returned to his plan to travel. He wanted to go to Asia but first thought he would see what the refugee situation was like in southern Europe with a vague idea of helping. If Calais was where we saw we could help, it was in Greece that we found out how to help and Refugee Support was born. For the next five years he lived and breathed that organisation.

His favourite story was about how we got started. Greece was opening derelict sites to settle refugees trapped in the country and John found one at a small town called Alexandreia near Thessaloniki. It was run by the military helicopter division of well-meaning but totally overwhelmed pilots, gunners and engineers. He waited outside the gates of that camp with 800 new refugee arrivals until he finally persuaded the Colonel to let him help. The Colonel said he could help but under no circumstances could we put a single screw in a single wall.

The next day John called me to say he had plans for a kitchen, a school, a playground, a warehouse and a distribution centre. We ended up doing all that and a lot more. It was John all over. At heart, he was a salesman. He could charm. He loved doing deals. He was persistent. He was never short on ambition. And once he had a plan he wanted it done immediately. It was like working with a bulldozer.

One camp was not enough so before long we were working in two other camps. At one point we were working in five refugee camps with about 2,500 refugees and 40 volunteers. And then he wanted to go to Bangladesh to support the Rohinja. We were there for 4 months. Then we opened up our first Dignity Centre in Cyprus. He constantly talked about going all over the world.

Looking back on it now, I don’t know how we did it. But I know I couldn’t have had the most rewarding eight years of my life without him. Where he was bold, impatient and a constant font of ideas, I was cautious, analytical and organised. We both only really cared about results, both enjoyed clowning about and both had endless optimism. Together, we achieved amazing things.

As anyone who met him will also know, he could be…difficult. He could be incredibly unreasonable. He had an infuriating habit of interrupting you. He would play Chris de Burgh on repeat. He frequently lost his temper. We once had a shouting match over the phone that went on for 10 minutes where we both quit. The next day we were back to solving problems and making plans.

And like all people he could be contradictory. He forgot everyone’s name but had an unerring and enviable memory for numbers and prices. He would shun any praise but would have absolutely loved the adoring comments the announcement of his death has prompted. He would complain bitterly about having to pay for the coffee if he thought it wasn’t his turn but repeatedly paid for some of our big ticket projects.

Setting up new projects was what he loved and one of our most rewarding was in Tijuana in 2018. We went with no idea how or where we were going to help. But, as with every project we’ve done, we started with a contact, found out what people needed, decided to help and good people joined in. Working with a local grass roots organisation of wonderful people and some brilliant volunteers who came to help, within a few days we were serving hundreds of people hot food on the street. It’s a magical process that we’ve seen again and again but it needs a John to make it happen.

The stress and the work inevitably took its toll and he started spending more time in the UK, getting a place close to Adam and Gemma who then made his dreams come true by providing him with grandchildren. And even though RS had been everything before that, he was happy letting me take over while he turned all his attention to his family.

I spoke to John just before he went into hospital and his mercifully short illness. He wanted to live much, much longer to see his beloved grandchildren grow into adults. But that fiercely independent man would have hated a lingering exit. Even then he was talking about buying a caravan so he could go touring.

I learnt so much from John. He could drive me completely around the bend but I loved him like a brother. It’s been a rough couple of days but to quote Faulkner: Between grief and nothing, I will take grief. We had something and it lives on.
In response to calls from many of our supporters, John’s son Adam has kindly set up a fundraiser where you can make a donation in John’s memory.

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