One local pastor saw the refugee crisis firsthand while visiting Greece last month.
Dan Cochrane, senior pastor at CrossRoads Church, was on the beach where refugees were landing after a trek across the ocean from Turkey. Up to 3,000 people a day were making the trip to Greece to seek refuge at that time.
“When we landed on the south side of the island (of Lesvos) it was about a one and a half hour to two hour drive to the north side where most of the refugees come in. We visited two of the big UN camps on the way up – these are huge camps with thousands of refugees there – they are Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi. There are some North African refugees there but most of them coming over are from the Turkey side,” said Cochrane. “They have to get registered on Lesvos before they can take the ferry to Athens. Once they hit Athens, they are on their own.”
Between one third and a half of the refugees are children under the age of 12.
“It was a very intriguing thing to see. The beach is strewn with old life rafts and boats and mountains of life jackets – they just throw them off when they hit the beaches,” said Cochrane. “They will get out of the raft and kiss the ground. They are just so grateful. And they come out of the raft with plastic shopping bags – that is their life possessions – that is all they have. There are a lot of mothers and children.
“On the beach there is a lot of relief that they made the trip across, because a lot of them don’t and that is why you’ll see them kissing the ground or kneeling and praying. But that passes quickly to now let’s get on with this because they are wet and the kids are wet and they need help.”
The trek from Turkey to Lesvos isn’t made without risk.
“It is about an hour and a half trip across if you are in a boat on a good day,” said Cochrane, adding his goal of the trip was to see what role CrossRoads Church could play. “But a bad day, it could be four hours or they might not make it. The rafts have about three times as many people on them as there should be. They are loaded down and sometimes a child will drown in the bottom of the raft.”
EuroRelief, which is a branch of Hellenic Ministries, is currently operating one of the transition camps on the island of Lesvos, according to their web site. Their goal is to provide shelter, food, water, clothing and sanitation. They sleep between 1,000-2,000 refugees nightly. Cochrane visited that camp on his trip.
“They bring the refugees into the camps and give them dry clothes because they are soaked. They get a sleeping bag, they get directions on where to go and where to register,” said Cochrane. “They are usually in the camp just one night – they want to get down to where the ferries leave.”
And many of the refugees are well-educated, Cochrane added.
“These aren’t poor, uneducated people – there are pediatricians, IT people, dentists – these are well-educated people. It’s like if you took a cross section of 3,000 people out of Red Deer, you would get a little bit of everything,” said Cochrane.
“What impacts you is that these people have a name and a face and when we’re at a distance we just see a number and we hear all the bad news. But when you’re there you realize that they are ordinary people.
“Could they be bad people? Of course they could. I think it would be naive to say there are no bad people getting through. But I think initially what really hits you is that these are real people and they have nothing.”
In addition, while visiting Lesvos, Cochrane asked EuroRelief what they needed and they said volunteers. “We’re sending over four teams starting on January 9th. What they need people for is to help the refugees out of the life rafts because they are cold and frozen and to ensure the children get to the shore safely. They also need help being directed to the camp and then changing beds over and helping people get warm clothes. It’s just helping them get to the camp, get warm, get fed and have good instructions from there.”
Cochrane added CrossRoads Church is also working on sponsoring a few families when they arrive in Red Deer. “That is a commitment that will last at least a year, but we’re talking about it as a life-long friendship.
“We’re also working with the Central Alberta Refugee Effort and they have given us different ideas like helping with ESL (English As a Second Language), driving a car, getting set up with school and things like that.”
Meanwhile, Cochrane said he hopes Central Albertans will open their hearts and minds.
“As Christians our position has to be that we work from a place of no fear. That doesn’t mean that we are blind to realities out there, but at CrossRoads we recognize whether or not we agree or disagree, they are coming so what are we going to do about that? We have decided that we are going to open our arms and help them the best way that we can to become good citizens of Red Deer and of Canada,” he said. “We are not the government. The government has a role to play and that role is to protect the country. As a church, our role is to deal with what we have on the ground here in Red Deer and what we can do over there to help. It’s a different role.”