When Smithers-raised Ben Alles went to the Greek island of Lesbos to help Middle Eastern refugees arriving on boats from Turkey, he had hoped to work with people affected by trauma to help them on their journey to a new life.
As he reached the villages of Mytilene and Molyvos and saw the sheer number of refugees, Alles quickly realized there was barely enough volunteers to keep everybody warm and clean.
“We wanted to just spend time with the kids and see what we could do on that side but that didn’t actually end up happening because as soon as we got there the volume of people increased and the volunteers just weren’t enough,” he said.
Alles got to work helping where it was needed most: setting up tents, picking up rubbish and cleaning toilets.
He was part of a group of volunteers working with Euro Relief, the humanitarian branch of the Hellenic Ministries in Greece, in October.
The volunteers also met the boats at the shore and gave the refugees food, water, dry clothes and directions to walk to a transition camp, where they could wait for a bus to take them to another camp.
“We took over this first camp and, essentially, tried to organize thousands of people to get on a bus and in the meantime feed them, give them water and dry clothes and any kind of resources they might need,” said Alles.
During a visit to Smithers last month, Alles said he wanted to share his experiences to help people understand refugees as individuals, not just an issue.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than half of the 660,000 refugees and migrants who reached Greece in 2015 landed at Lesbos. It puts the number of lives lost crossing the Mediterranean at about 3,460.
Alles said the boats he saw were always the same: inflatable Zodiac-type vessels stuffed dangerously over-capacity, with 50-70 people on what he believes was a 30-person boat.
When the sea was calm, he said some people were jubilant when they arrived, eager to start their new lives.
Other days, people arrived weeping and in shock after a harrowing journey on rough seas.
Alles said the refugees usually had a limited understanding of what was in store for them when they arrived.
With thousands of people reaching the island daily, Alles said there were never enough resources to go around.
“I think they are usually more hopeful before they know because it’s not as good as they think,” he said.
Alles said most people were sleeping outside and as winter approached, conditions would only get worse.
He said one of the hardest jobs for volunteers was telling the refugees to put out their fires because they were not allowed by the landowners.
A former Bulkley Valley resident who lives in Germany, Alles spent two weeks in Lesbos and hopes to return after Christmas.
He decided to travel to the island after one of his colleagues at the Youth With A Mission Christian organization volunteered there.
Alles said Smithers residents who wanted to help could donate practical items like clothes, blankets and sleeping bags, but urged people to seek advice from aid organizations on what to send.
He praised the Canadian government’s refugee program, whose goal is to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada by the end of February.
The program will prioritize families, women and children over single men, a practice Alles said was already being used at the entry-points to camps in Greece.
“We would empty out the families line first and then the single men would come but it was just heartbreaking to see their faces just waiting for hours to get any sort of help.”
Where Alles lives in Germany, he said there was a lot of support for refugees, but also opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy to Syrian refugees.
He said attitudes in Canada seemed more fearful towards the refugees, although he saw a lot of support for refugees in Smithers.
Alles believes people would not be as afraid if they had witnessed what he saw at the camp.
“I kind of forgot that people were afraid of Islam, and I think to move out of fear is the worst possible reaction, we should be moving out of love,” he said.