Staff member joins front line of refugee crisis

In November, Laurie Cooper, media communications officer for Divisions of Family Practice, spent 2 weeks volunteering with refugees on the island of Lesvos, Greece. We asked her to write a short piece for us to share with members.

When I saw the photograph of the Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach in September, my heart broke a little. I had heard about the refugee crisis in Europe but it seemed very distant. As a resident of BC I wasn’t really connected and then, suddenly, we all were. That little boy, Alyn Kurdi, and his family were trying to join relatives in the Lower Mainland. The crisis was in our backyard. 

Some friends and I wanted to help. I did some research and discovered that more than half of all refugees who make it to Europe—from Syria and other countries—enter Europe via the island of Lesvos. The small island is only 10 km from Turkey so, in good weather and with a decent engine, it is a relatively short crossing by boat (1.5 to 2 hours). Because of this, human smugglers have set up business on the beaches of Turkey, sending over 400?000 refugees to Lesvos in 2015.

I also discovered that, for a variety of political and bureaucratic reasons, the majority of the relief work on the island was being undertaken by small, independent volunteer groups. The larger NGOs were tied up in red tape trying to get permits to operate on the island. In the meantime, the crisis was being handled by the local Greek community and volunteers from around the world who had paid their own way to go and help. And the entire operation was being coordinated through social media—Facebook, WhatsApp, and Slack.

I reached out to a few local organizations on Lesvos and asked what they needed. Could we send them money? Would they prefer clothing donations? Their answer surprised me. They said they needed more people. Hence, in mid-November, a friend and I found ourselves on a plane headed for Greece. We don’t have any medical training but we were willing to do whatever was needed to help out.

We spent just under 2 weeks working with the Starfish Foundation in Molyvos. It is a small group started by a woman who owns a restaurant in the harbor of the small town. During our time there we greeted refugees who had arrived on the beach or had been rescued by the Coast Guard. We gave out blankets and dry clothing. We made and handed out hundreds and hundreds of sandwiches. We sorted donated clothing and prepared it for distribution across the island. We picked up garbage and swept out the tents where the refugees rested or slept. I also did a lot of driving. I delivered supplies where they were needed and used my rental car to shuttle refugees who were ill, elderly, or traveling with young children directly to the refugee camps.

The assistance we offered seems so minor in the face of the larger humanitarian crisis, but I know that I made at least a small difference in the lives of the refugees I met and helped.

Medical professionals (doctors, nurses, paramedics) are desperately needed on the island. For more information about volunteering on Lesvos, visit
—Laurie Cooper
Doctors of BC

Laurie Cooper,. Staff member joins front line of refugee crisis. BCMJ, Vol. 58, No. 1, January, February, 2016, Page(s) 40-41 - News.

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