Caption: Pictured John Aitcheson during the interview. Photo: CHARLES CHAMBERS.
By CHARLES CHAMBERS
His emotions said it all.
The memories of growing up as a seven year old in the streets of Suva was evident in the tears that flowed freely down his face.
The tunnel in Toorak he called ‘home’ and the warmth of the friendship of 13 other children who huddled together on wooden pallets overcame the cold and dampness of the surroundings.
A stream flowed under the pallets on which they lay and potato and onion bags were hung against the damp clay walls to give them some sort of comfort.
John Aitcheson, now the managing director of Althia Tours did not hold back his painful memories.
He wanted to share it as an inspiration for people who have been left out to fend for themselves by families and friends.
His wife, Fulori, also a director of the company sat beside him during this exclusive interview, providing comfort to John as he related his childhood days.
John was born in Tonga and was adopted by a John Jack k Aitcheson and his wife Maraia Silatolu.
Mr Aitcheson Senior was a copra plantation manager on Vava’u and took John, only a baby at that time under his care.
Later the couple, who did not have any children of their own, returned to Fiji with their adopted son and settled in Nausori.
“When I was seven, my adopted parents died and I was taken in by a couple – the man was from Rewa and his wife from a village in Ra,” John said.
“Because they had children of their own, I was slowly seen as the outcast in the family and that is when the ill-treatment started,” he said.
John paused and tears started streaming down his face and in a halting voice said, ”I cannot tell you the things I endured.”
He was slowly rejected by the family and pushed out of the home and then began his street life.
“When I was finally chased out of the house, at seven years old, I made my way down to Suva,” he said.
“I saw a boy looking for food in a stack of rubbish and joined him as I was really hungry,” John said, his face once again crumbling with emotion.
After finding what little grub they could, John followed the boy to his home, the tunnel and started a new life with a newfound family.
“Boy it was cold in the tunnel as water continuously ran below the pallets,” he said.
“At times when it rained heavily and the tunnel started to fill with water, we would make our way to below the Bailey bridge near the Suva wharf and sleep in the open spaces – at least it was warm,” he said.
An old lady, whom the street kids affectionately called ‘Bubu’ (grandmother), used to come around providing some food for us.
“She was from the St Vincent de Paul Society, a ministry which belonged to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese,” he said.
“That old lady was my turning point and I wish she was still around now because I owe a lot to her,” John said.
The lady started encouraging John to school and this started with pre-school in a shed in Toorak.”
“After school, we would return to the tunnel,” he said.
He was then taken by the old lady and got enrolled at Suva Primary School.
“She arranged uniforms for us who started school and we used to take our clothes to the Hari Krishna temple and use the water from a tank there to shower, then changed and off to school,” John said.
The lady also arranged casual work for them in supermarkets to earn some money.
“With the money we earned, Bubu took some and with that she bought our school materials and clothes and the remainder that we had we used on food.
“One thing is that whatever anyone brought ‘home’, even if it was a small packet of biscuits, was shared equally by everyone.”
One of the saddest occasions that John came across was when they learnt ‘Bubu’ had passed away – this was after she had not turned up to their tunnel for several days.
Soon after those living in the tunnel started to move out and find homes with John being taken in by a family in Browning Street in Raiwaqa.
However after a few days he returned to the tunnel but was soon taken in by a pastor who came by there one day.
John’s perseverance to strive for a better life for himself earned him a place at Queen Victoria School where he reached form six level.
He returned to Suva and completed form seven at Nasinu Secondary School.
John then moved on to the former Fiji Institute of Technology in Samabula studying Business Management in a three year course.
Following this, John was enlisted in the British army and was based at Bathurst until he was part of a redundancy move that saw him return to Fiji.
On his arrival, John did not waste time and tried his hands on different ventures including baking, grass cutting but later managed to get into his real mode of work.
He started his career in the tourism and hospitality industry and has never looked back.
From a trainee sales manager at different hotels, including those under the Hexagon Group which were West motor Inn, Sea Shell Cove and Grand West.
He also became human resource manager at different hotels and resorts in the west.
During this time he started dating Fulori who was also in the tourism industry and they soon found out one common passion they shared.
“We wanted to spend the rest of our lives helping people in need, especially poor children.”
“I wanted to do this because the Lord has been good to me all through those tough times and brought me to where I am today,” he said.
“Fulori and I have dedicated our lives to helping those in need – just giving back to God the glory he has given us,” John said.
John said his career in the tourism sector could not have come about without the guidance of the late Bruce Mooney of Coral Sun.
“He was like a father to me and guided me through my initial years in the tourism sector,” he said.
John and Fulori began their company on September 30 2014 and the couple have two children.
He speaks Tongan, Samoan, Pigeon English, Fijian and Hindi fluently.
He carries out workshops and talks to youth groups in villages and encourages them to work towards a better life.
He presently has three vehicles in his company with a total of five staff.