Canadians discuss volunteering on the front lines of the refugee crisis
LESVOS, GREECE – Several infants crying, families arriving in over-crowded inflatable boats cold, exhausted and wet.
These are some of the sights and sounds volunteers on Lesvos island say they can’t erase from their memory.
“Some days you can sort of block it out because you know that you have to go through with it, and now break down or think about what you’re feeling. You have to go help people,” says Canadian refugee aid volunteer Natalia Wozniak.
With so many refugees and migrants arriving on the Greek island, people from around the world have stationed themselves to help, including volunteer life guards working out on the water.
“We do have thermal cameras so we can spot boats from a distance but you’re not always 100 per cent sure until the boat is nearby and you can visually make out people,” says Canadian volunteer lifeguard Patrick McBride.
There are also many who are on the island welcoming, feeding and providing dry clothing for asylum seekers. A wide range of roles are being filled by small non-profits and large NGOs.
“These people are fleeing war and there’s fragmented family units because of say a loss of life or maybe the entire family couldn’t afford the trip,” says McBride.
However, even on the worst days, some refugees are sent out onto the dangerous waters.
“From what I’ve seen, these [refugees and migrants] are the doctors, the engineers, the nurses, the teachers, whatever profession, it’s those people from their respective societies,” says McBride.
Smugglers often give them a crash course on how to operate the boats and then they’re left to fend for themselves on the water, leading to some dangerous landings on the shore – for those that make it that far.
“There are rocks, many many rocks, some just below the surface and those ones, if the boat is coming in at an odd angle, it’ll flip the boat so that’s happened on certain occasions,” says McBride.
However, many volunteers say no matter what conditions they arrive in, there’s one constant: the appreciation from the refugees and migrants.
“They’re usually very positive, they’re very happy to be here and they’re very cheerful. Obviously they’re very shocked and scared but at the same time they’re very happy and grateful to all of us,” says Wozniak.