Smithers resident Laurie Cooper has been honoured for her work bringing refugees to Canada.
MOSAIC, a large Vancouver-based, non-profit immigrant settlement organization bestowed Cooper with its annual Human Rights Award in a virtual ceremony Oct. 22.
“The first time I met Laurie, I became very impressed with her dedication, unwavering enthusiasm and passion for the sponsorship of refugees who were in dire need of protection,” said Saleem Spindari, senior manager of refugees and migrant worker programs at MOSAIC, who nominated Cooper for the award and works closely with her.
Over the past five years, Cooper has directly involved in the private sponsorship of 21 people and, through various other projects associated with approximately 300 more, she estimates.
Cooper was inspired to get involved after seeing the tragic image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Kurdish refugee boy found washed up on a beach in Turkey in September 2015. The boy’s uncle and aunt lived in Coquitlam, a stone’s throw from Cooper’s residence at the time in North Vancouver.
“I could see Coquitlam from my window,” she said. “Somehow that made it seem like it was in my backyard.”
So, she got together with a group of mothers from the area.
“We talked about what it would be like if thousands of people started washing up on our beach and how would we handle that, what would we do,” she said.
They decided they wanted to help, perhaps by raising money or collecting clothing, and Cooper reached out to some women she had read about in the international press who were working on the island of Lesbos in Greece where many refugees were landing.
“They said, ‘we need money and we need clothing, but what we really need are people here on the ground, we’re just overwhelmed’,” Cooper said, adding she had never thought about doing anything quite so dramatic before, but she had two weeks of holidays and a bunch of airmiles, so she booked the flight and off she went.
“It sounds trite, but it was truly life changing, I could not believe how amazing the people were there, the refugees, they were just such amazingly courageous, resilient people who were doing what they thought was necessary to protect their family,” she said.
“And then the volunteers, they were so inspiring, they were just people from all over the world, mostly young people, who just showed up on the island and said, ‘how can we help?’
Cooper was not a complete stranger to helping others at the time. She had done some volunteer work helping homeless people in Vancouver, fundraising for Haiti following the devestating earthquake that hit the island in 2010 and smaller projects.
“A lot of my motivation over the years has just come from being a mother and just thinking how can I help these children and, ultimately, even adults are somebody’s children,” she said.
She also cites her father, Bob Cooper, a successful Vancouver businessman who immigrated to Canada from Ireland in the 1950s, as an inspiration.
“He was very poor and he received a lot of help in his early days from the Salvation Army, so he never missed a Christmas ringing the bell for the Salvation Army donation kettle,” she explained.
“He was someone who was always involved in community, he was always involved in helping people who were less fortunate than him, or who had fallen on hard times, so, I think he modelled that behaviour.”
Still, after that first trip to Greece, she did not know how all consuming it would become.
“This has sort of taken over my life, in a good way,” she said.
She has been back to Greece three more times since, volunteering in refugee camps where she has helped welcome those making their way to safety in Europe. In 2016, she began privately sponsoring individuals and families to come to Canada.
And in August 2019, Cooper initiated a project called Operation #NotForgotten (ONF) in partnership with MOSAIC. ONF aims to provide safe resettlement for hundreds of refugees who have been detained in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru Island since 2013, as part of Australia’s indefinite offshore immigration detention policy.
MOSAIC has since taken over the project and it has raised enough money to resettle 200 people.
Along the way Cooper has even garnered a little international fame. One of the refugees Cooper has privately sponsored was Hassan Al Kontar, a Syrian refugee who became a Twitter sensation in 2018 when he was stranded at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia.
After months living in the airport and then being detained by Malaysian police for two more months under threat of deportation back to Syria, it was Cooper who got him out leading to a very emotional meeting at the Vancouver airport that made worldwide news.
In addition to raising the money to sponsor him, she had brokered an arrangement with the Fairmont Chateau Whistler that provided housing and a job.
For Al Kontar, there is no one more deserving of the MOSAIC Human Rights Award than Cooper.
“Whenever you ask people to define and describe hope, they will say it’s the light at the end of the dark tunnel, something they can’t directly touch or feel how warm it is, they can’t draw a photo of what hope looks like,” he said. “For me it’s a different story; for me hope has a human face — Laurie Cooper’s face.”
A journalist by trade, Cooper spent many years with the CBC starting in Yellowknife, N.W.T.
“It was really crazy, it was the early eighties and I was a bush pilot’s girlfriend, so I followed my bush pilot boyfriend up there and I was just there for the summer, but it was a really neat experience,” she said. “I was a city girl from Vancouver so it was quite an eye-opener.”
She then spent time in Regina and Calgary before making her way back to the Lower Mainland and eventually going over, she said jokingly, to “the dark side” as a public relations consultant.
She and her husband George Vodarek have spent the last 35 years living on and off in Whistler, but were looking for a change.
“We love the outdoors — skiing, hiking, mountain biking — and that’s why we lived in Whistler for so many years. But Whistler has become simply too crowded. We were looking for something a little less busy, but it had to have a ski hill,” she said.
“We visited Smithers in February and we loved the skiing and met a great bunch of people. We moved here at the beginning of June and we are loving it. Spectacular nature and a wonderful community!”
Unexpectedly, they were also joined by their son Jamie Vodarek, who had been planning to go off to university, but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is now doing his studying remotely from their home just outside of town.
Although they have only lived in the valley for a few months, Cooper wasted no time finding a way to parlay her refugee work into a local project.
When she and George were checking out Smithers in February, she heard about Ishmail Alismail, one of several Syrian refugees who have been sponsored by people in Smithers to come to Canada.
“I ended up connecting with him through Facebook and then he and his brother Mahmoud and his girlfriend showed up to help us move in,” she said. “He’s an amazing guy.”
Ishmail and Mahmoud have a sister, Aisha, who the brothers are hoping to bring to Canada along with her husband Mohamed and their four children, Nadim (9), Nahla (7), Nour (5) and Hamza (3).
“Her and her husband are living in Turkey right now, where many Syrian refugees have been living in pretty desperate circumstances there, so we are fundraising to sponsor the family,” Cooper said.
So far, a GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $5,000 toward a goal of $25,000.