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.
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.
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.
RITSONA CAMP, GREECE
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.