A Drop in the Ocean A Whistler woman's journey into the heart of the Refugee crisis

Story and photos, unless noted, by Laurie Cooper | October 4, 2018

It began with a photograph that broke my heart.

In September 2015, the picture of a toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, dressed in bright red and blue, alerted the world to the enormity of the Syrian refugee crisis. It also started me on a journey that took me from Vancouver, into the heart of the crisis, and back home to Whistler.

In the past three years, I have made three trips overseas, worked with hundreds of refugees, and am now sponsoring 21 refugees—individuals and families—to come to Canada. When a tragedy is measured in millions, it can be hard to comprehend. It is easy to forget that each of these individuals has a unique story. But when you get the opportunity to meet a refugee, you quickly realize that our similarities far outnumber our differences.

Here are just some of their stories, the stories of refugees I have gotten to know since I first saw that picture of Alan Kurdi three years ago.

(Photo: istockphoto.com)

The humanitarian crisis of our generation

The global refugee situation has been called the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. More than 68 million people globally are currently displaced, forced to flee their homes by war, famine, persecution and poverty. Over 25 million of those displaced are recognized by the United Nations as refugees, but until the picture of the boy on the beach, many of us were completely unaware of the magnitude of the tragedy.

From UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, June 2018

To a large extent, the crisis has been fuelled by the Syrian Civil War. Since 2011, nearly half of the country’s population has been forced to leave their homes—6.1 million are displaced within Syria; 5.6 million have left the country. The majority sought refuge in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but over 1 million refugees have made their way to Europe. In addition, people fleeing persecution and violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and many African countries have augmented the migration numbers.

"No one puts their children in a boat unless the sea is safer than the land."

During the fall of 2015, thousands of refugees a day made the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, trying to find their way to Northern Europe. Large numbers of refugees—estimated between 3,000 to 8,000 a day—landed on the beautiful, rugged beaches on the island of Lesvos.

Refugees currently living on the Greek Islands (from UNHCR, September 2018)

Sixty per cent of the refugees landing in Greece were women and children. These people felt the risk of a treacherous and potentially deadly journey was safer than staying in a war zone. In the words of the British-Syrian poet Warsan Shire, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the sea is safer than the land.”

At that time, officials from Greece and the United Nations were quickly overwhelmed by the number of refugees arriving on Greek shores, and from the start, volunteers did much of the work of caring for these arrivals. As news of the crisis spread around the globe, people of all ages and from all walks of life dropped everything and showed up to help. These freelance humanitarians spent long nights in the dark watching for arriving boats, greeting refugees as they washed up on beaches, preparing food, and sorting donations.

Sitting at my kitchen table one grey Vancouver day, I made what would be a life-changing decision. I would go to Greece and help. I had never worked overseas or been involved in any kind of humanitarian organization, but I felt called to do what I could. Without thinking about it too much, I went online and bought a ticket to Lesvos, and a couple of weeks later, three friends decided to join me. We gathered donations of money and clothing, and set off for a two-week trip in November of 2015.


TRIP# 1 - 2015

As soon as we arrived on Lesvos, we saw abandoned boats all along the shore. People had made the ocean crossing on these desperately inadequate vessels after having been herded aboard by smugglers, sometimes at gunpoint. The guns were necessary because many of the potential passengers balked when they saw the boats they were to travel in. Makeshift watercrafts made from inflatable plastic and plywood were crammed with 50 to 60 people and cast adrift with only a minimal amount of fuel. Smugglers typically charge anywhere from US$800 to $2,000 a head to make this harrowing and potentially fatal trip.

On our second day on the island, we met a group of people from Syria and Iraq who had survived the dangerous journey from Turkey. One member of the group was a young Syrian journalist in his late twenties named Nawan. Nawan spoke some English, and he explained how he and his family were trying to make their way to Germany, where he had an uncle. He also told us about their journey.

Nawan (kneeling centre) and his family.

The nine adults and three children—an eight-year-old boy and two-year-old twins, one of whom had cerebral palsy— had been transported to the Turkish coast by smugglers, where they spent several days hiding in the woods, waiting for the right time to depart. Without food, they were hungry, tired and scared. Finally, one night at 2 a.m., the group boarded a small inflatable boat, along with one of the smugglers. Shortly after they left the shore, the smuggler jumped off the boat and swam back to the beach. Not long after, the boat’s engine died.

They drifted, terrified, for over an hour in the pitch black until they were rescued...

They drifted, terrified, for over an hour in the pitch black until they were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard. The group was brought to the Molyvos Harbour on Lesvos, where we handed them some basic supplies: dry clothing, a cheese sandwich, a banana, and a bottle of water. After that, they were bussed to a UN refugee camp for registration and then were free to continue into Europe. A week after we met them, Nawan sent me a Facebook message to say they had arrived safely in Germany.

If you happen to fall into the water wearing one of these jackets, you will sink, not float.

Nawan and his group were some of the lucky ones. Since 2015, over 12,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. One of the eeriest and most moving sights on Lesvos is the so-called “lifejacket graveyard.” High on a hill above the town of Molyvos, thousands upon thousands of lifejackets are piled up. Each one represents a life. Many of these jackets were sold by the smugglers to the refugees—but are often fake, filled with absorbent foam that weighs the swimmer down. If you happen to fall into the water wearing one of these jackets, you will sink, not float.


TRIP #2 - 2016

(Photo by by Sayed Ahmadzia Ebrahimi)

That first trip to Greece had a profound effect on me. I had been concerned about the potential trauma of the experience, but while I was definitely affected by the tragedy I had witnessed, I also felt a deep commitment to continue helping. After returning home, a group of us started a small non-profit organization called Canada Caring Society. We raised funds, supported volunteers on the ground, and encouraged others to travel overseas to lend a helping hand. And I started planning another trip.

(Photo: Members of Canada Caring Society demonstrating in Vancouver for safe passage of refugees.)

In March 2016, I returned to Greece, this time accompanied by my 21-year-old daughter, Julia, and her friend, Isabella. Only days before our arrival, the situation in the country had changed dramatically. In the early days of the crisis, refugees would arrive in Greece and stay anywhere from a few days to a few weeks before moving on into Northern Europe. But growing tensions over the influx of refugees in some European countries resulted in a deal being drawn up with the European Union to stop the flow of people from Turkey into Europe. The EU agreed to provide Turkey with funding to keep the refugees in their country. In exchange, Turkey would commit to preventing boats from leaving their shores. At the same time, Greek borders were closed; refugees were no longer allowed to leave the country. As a result, 65,000 refugees were trapped in Greece, housed in woefully inadequate camps.

We met Rima and her family at Ritsona, a makeshift refugee camp north of Athens that had been thrown together in a matter of days. A rough field was cleared, 164 canvas tents were built, and 1,000 refugees were moved in. The majority of people at the camp were from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and they came from all walks of life. We met engineers, architects, cooks, and university students, many of whom spoke English. These well-educated professionals were now living in a refugee camp with only two working showers and pre-packaged food that was often mouldy or improperly cooked. Each person was provided with a single litre of water per day.

(Photo: Laurie Cooper with young resident of Ritsona Camp.)

Rima was travelling with her mother and three sisters, one of whom had been born with an intellectual disability. Rima’s father was dead, so they had decided to flee the war in Syria. Now they were trying to get to Switzerland, where they had relatives waiting for them and a comfortable apartment to live in. Instead, they were trying to survive in a dirty and disorganized camp where rats and snakes would frequently crawl into the tents at night. (Later, after we had returned to Canada, we heard there were wild pigs rampaging through the camp, terrifying the residents.)

Video: Julia Vodarek & Isabella Munro with children at Ritsona Camp

I met Rima when her little sister took my hand and pulled me towards her mother’s tent. We arrived to find a number of men and women gathered. Although they were all sitting on the ground, someone quickly ran to find me a chair. Rima’s mother, Rania, insisted that I accept some coffee. Throughout my experiences working with refugees, I have been frequently humbled by their generosity. They have so little and yet they are always willing to share what they have.

Rima with her mother, Rania, three sisters and Julia.

With the help of a young man who spoke some English, Rania told me her story: The death of her husband. The terror of war. The decision to make the dangerous journey. The desire to find a safe country for her daughters. She started to cry—and so did I. Her pain transcended language barriers. I desperately wanted to do something for her and her daughters, so we invited them to join us for a meal and use the shower at the AirBnB where we were staying. My daughter bought some nail polish, and she and the girls spent the afternoon doing each other’s nails and playing with a young cat we had adopted.

Rania showed me pictures on her phone of happier times: family meals and celebrations in their apartment in Syria. Rania and the girls ended up spending almost six months in that camp and then, after nearly a year in Greece, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees relocated them to Bern, Switzerland to live with their relatives.


TRIP #3 - 2018

In the early days of the crisis, the refugees arriving in Greece were scared and desperate, but they had hope. If they reached the shores of Greece safely, they could register with the United Nations and continue on, often to join other members of their family. When the borders closed in 2016, Greece effectively became a giant detention centre and, although Turkey had committed to stopping migrant boats from crossing, refugees continued to arrive, albeit in much smaller numbers.

When I returned to Lesvos in June 2018, there were 10,000 refugees on the island. The majority of them are living in a former military prison called Moria. Although it was only designed to hold 2,000 people, there are now over 8,000 men, women and children packed into what Doctors Without Borders has called “the worst refugee camp in the world.” Raw sewage flows over the ground, just feet from where children play. Residents line up for one to two hours for each meal and the food is often undercooked and occasionally ridden with maggots. There are frequent fights and riots, as people vent their frustrations at being held indefinitely in a place they have no desire to be.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, Greece. (Photos by by Sayed Ahmadzia Ebrahimi)

On this trip, my friend and I worked at a “community centre” run by a Swiss non-profit organization called One Happy Family. Every day, hundreds of refugees make the one-hour walk from Moria to find a place to relax, away from the stress and despair of the camp. A free lunch is served and there are many services and activities on offer. Refugees receive a daily allowance of two “drachma,” virtual money used at the centre that was named after Greece’s former currency. They can use this to pay for a haircut in the barbershop, get clothes repaired by the resident tailor, or buy a tea or coffee at the café. They can also work out at the outdoor gym, see a doctor, consult a lawyer, and there is even a playground and an early childhood centre for the many children living at Moria.

Refugees often feel powerless. They have been stripped of their dignity, their possessions and their status, and have lost control of their destiny. One Happy Family places a big emphasis on empowering refugees, so the programs are staffed by helpers drawn from the refugee population itself, with support from mostly foreign volunteers. One of the helpers working at the café during my time there was Aimerance, a bright, bubbly 24-year-old young woman from West Cameroon.

One Happy Family Community Centre on Lesvos, Greece (Photos by by Sayed Ahmadzia Ebrahimi)

In the early days of the refugee crisis, most of the arrivals were from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but there have been an increasing number of people fleeing poverty, violence and food shortages in many African countries. After a long and treacherous journey from her home, Aimerance boarded a boat on the Turkish coast on Christmas Day last year. Along with 44 other people, she made the sea crossing and landed safely on Lesvos.

For many people who arrive on the island, their hopes are crushed when they recognize the stark reality of their situation. With travel restrictions strictly enforced, there is very little possibility of leaving the island. Most people attempt to reach Germany, France, or the United Kingdom, but instead find themselves stuck in a country they don’t want to be in and that doesn’t really want them.

Some refugees can apply to be reunited with family in other European countries, but that can be an onerous, time-consuming process. For the majority of the arrivals on the island, they have no option but to request asylum in Greece. After over nine months on Lesvos, Aimerance has now been allowed to leave the island, where she can legally work, so she has moved to Athens and is trying to build a life in Greece.


After my second trip to Greece, my husband and I moved back to Whistler after an 11-year absence. Shortly after our return, I met with Norm Mastalir, the GM of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. I mentioned my volunteer work and the fact that many of the young people I had met spoke excellent English.

Norm listened intently and then suggested that the hotel would be willing to employ suitable candidates, if I could sponsor them to come to Canada. With a great deal of optimism and a healthy dose of enthusiasm, we launched a project to bring a group of young refugees to Whistler and, with the help of the BC Muslim Association, I was able to secure sponsorship support for 12 individuals.

Working with two other experienced volunteers, suitable candidates overseas were identified, screened, and eventually provided with open-ended job offers to work in the housekeeping department of the hotel. In April 2017, sponsorship applications were completed and submitted to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. In July 2018, the first three recruits—two from Syria and one from Afghanistan—arrived in Whistler. A fourth recruit arrived in late September and the remaining eight should be here sometime over the next 12 months.

While Whistler might seem an unusual place for a refugee, the recent arrivals have been touched by the warm welcome from the community and, in a place where everyone is from somewhere else, they say they don’t feel like strangers. They are all working full time and have secured accommodation, and are already making a real difference in the lives of their family members who remain overseas.

(Refugees in their new home, Whistler, B.C.)

Nineteen-year-old Inam is one of the new arrivals working at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. An Afghani, Inam was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan, where his parents had fled to escape the war in their home country. The family moved back to Afghanistan when Inam was in his early teens, but within a few years, threats of violence forced Inam to leave his family and his home. Inam eventually completed the harrowing journey to Istanbul, where he found himself scrabbling to exist in a city full of refugees.

Ultimately, Inam applied for a position in Whistler and, after 15 months of waiting, he arrived in Canada. The rest of Inam’s family is still in Afghanistan, but he has already been able to help them. With money from his first two paycheques, Inam has been able to start sending funds home, which has allowed his family to move to a safer area and his younger siblings to attend school.

Far from over

When I made the decision to go to Greece in 2015, I had no idea what I was getting into. After three years, I can now say that my work overseas and here at home has given me the opportunity to meet some of the most amazing, courageous and compassionate people in the world. Most of the refugees I have had the privilege to work with are strong, caring people who are doing what is necessary to protect themselves and their families. They have survived extreme brutality and ongoing mistreatment from governments and other institutions that are supposed to be taking care of their needs. Despite what they have gone through, they continue to demonstrate strength and resilience in the face of unimaginable tragedy and loss.

My faith in humanity has also been restored. Volunteers from around the world have showed up to help out wherever they were needed. I have seen volunteers of every age, race and religion work side-by-side for hours on end. People have stepped away from lucrative careers and put their lives on hold to do this. There is a fiercely committed network of multilingual volunteers on social media who work tirelessly on a daily basis to share information, raise funds, and provide support for people who have nowhere else to turn.

The refugee crisis is far from over.

The refugee crisis is far from over. The news media may have stopped covering it, but there are still people being forced to flee for their safety and there are millions of refugees living in desperate circumstances with little or no support. By 2050, forecasts predict an estimated 200 million people could be on the move, largely driven by the impacts of climate change. That is nearly triple the current number of displaced people around the globe. The problem is not going away. For now, I will continue to support refugees and volunteers overseas, while welcoming the new arrivals here at home, but I know my efforts are just a drop in the ocean.

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