- Associated Press - Saturday, February 13, 2016

OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) - It’s dawn as Andrew Frania awakes to the four bare walls of his room in a wing of a nursing home. He turns his socks inside out and grabs his hiking shoes, still wet from the day before.

His shoes are always wet from standing in the Aegean Sea, and he is always cold from Greece’s rainy winter. But as he wraps his socks in plastic bags and puts on his shoes, he remembers how wet and cold each refugee is who arrives in a boat at the Greek Islands.

His feet suddenly feel dry.

Frania, a former University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh student, is like many people. He wanted more from life than a cubicle job working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Professors and friends at UWO sensed this in him. But Frania didn’t realize his purpose until he ditched his studies and took a chance overseas, Oshkosh Northwestern Media (http://oshko.sh/1QjXDyU ) reported.

The 29-year-old is a refugee volunteer on Samos in the Greek Islands, little splatters of land between Turkey and Greece. He more or less lives hand to mouth, funding his refugee work through a Go Fund Me campaign. This enables him to meet his basic needs and buy shoes, socks and winter coats for refugees.

On this day, despite his soggy feet, Frania grabs an orange and heads toward the sea, where he’ll spend hours looking through binoculars for tiny boats packed with more than 50 men, women and children fleeing war-torn countries. As he wraps blankets around their shoulders and sits them down to exchange their wet socks for dry donated pairs, some tell him his smile is the first they’ve seen in years.

Originally from South Korea, Frania was adopted as an infant and grew up in southern Michigan. His family moved to Oshkosh when he was 20. From 2004 to 2011, he served honorably in the U.S. Marines, achieving the rank of sergeant. His service included deployment to Iraq.

After the Marines, he returned to Oshkosh and studied international studies and French at UWO as a non-traditional student. On Christmas Day 2015, he left for Greece.

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So far in 2016, more than 67,000 refugees have arrived in Greece by sea, according statistics from the United Nations. They join the more than 1 million refugees crossing into Europe from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, all of which has sparked an international crisis. They are fleeing countries plagued with war, repressive governments and human rights violations. Frania also meets refugees from Morocco, Libya, Iran, Pakistan and Palestine, he said in an email interview.

Frania was looking for opportunities a few weeks before Christmas to volunteer in Syrian refugee camps set up by the United Nations. He stumbled across the grassroots efforts on the Greek Islands organized by non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, a group of volunteers not associated with a government or for-profit agency. He is indirectly working with the Norwegian group A Drop in the Ocean, he said.

“I was fascinated to see thousands of volunteers — millennials — using their social media and their technology to change/save the world, and I wanted to see it in action,” Frania said.

He left the United States on Christmas morning to embark on a 72-hour journey of “layovers, cheap youth hostels, airport sandwiches, wrong airports, cabbies … and ferries,” he wrote in his blog Dec. 29. He arrived on the island of Lesbos, Greece, where almost 37,000 refugees have also arrived so far in 2016, according to the UN.

Michael Rutz, a history professor who taught Frania at UWO, said Frania’s actions don’t surprise him.

Frania was an energetic student interested in the world and how its history connects to current events, Rutz said. It was clear from their interactions in class that Frania wanted to help others, especially given his military experience.

“I think that is something that really speaks to his general character,” Rutz said. “What I saw was certainly someone who not only wanted to learn, but wanted to make a difference in the world.”

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Frania worked in Lesbos until early January, and then headed to Samos. The island was in desperate need of volunteers. The UN has reported that more than 4,000 refugees have arrived there since Jan. 1.

Like Frania, many of the other volunteers are in their 20s. They are from the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and the Middle East.

Despite eating only oranges, soup and granola bars, working long days, witnessing death and being constantly wet, Frania said he can’t imagine a life in America as fulfilling as the one he’s leading now.

“I went because of the globalization and inter-connectedness through social media and technology, but being here it was the humanity,” he said. “It was nothing what I expected. I thought I was going to save people, but instead coming to the Greek Islands saved me.”

Greece, which is already in a financial crisis, was told this week by the European Union to exercise tighter control of its borders in compliance with the Schengen Agreement. Frania said in his blog it would eliminate the efforts on the islands altogether, but the volunteers plan to continue helping refugees wherever they can.

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Information from: Oshkosh Northwestern Media, http://www.thenorthwestern.com

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