Soldiers return from refugee mission: 'We were helping to change lives'

OROMOCTO, N.B. -- The first of the Canadian troops sent to Lebanon and Jordan to help process Syrian refugees destined for Canada have returned home, saying the smiles on the faces of young Syrian children made it worthwhile.

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"All it takes is seeing one little one the same age as my daughter -- smiling because they are going to Canada," said Major Drew Willis, who was among 68 soldiers who arrived to waiting family members early Tuesday at Base Gagetown in New Brunswick.

They were among the 230 soldiers who left Canada in mid-November as part of Operation Provision, assisting with the federal government's initiative to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada by the end of February.

Warrant Officer Stephen Mills and his wife Wendy kissed and hugged as they reunited. The two spoke to reporters about their experience over the last month-and-a-half -- Stephen in Beirut and Wendy at home in New Maryland, N.B.

Q: Was it difficult to have him away?

Wendy Mills: It's kind of a hard time of year to have him away with snowstorms and power outages and everything. It's a long wait, but I'm so proud of him for what he was doing.

When we saw the first refugees land, I was just so proud to know that he was over there, kind of starting the process and being part of the process. He would tell me stories about the kids over there.

Q: Can you share some of those stories about the kids and what you experienced?

Stephen Mills: I was in Beirut, Lebanon, and we worked at the processing centre where families would come in.

It was mostly families with little kids, and where I have kids myself, you see the personal experience where you see these kids coming from refugee camps. It was humbling to see them and see the looks in their faces.

They seen us there, especially in uniform, Canadians helping them get from there to here. It was different from my other deployments in the past.

Q: What resonated most for you? What did you take away from the experience?

Stephen Mills: Just the fact that we were helping to change lives ... just to know they were getting something better. That's pretty much what kept us going.

Q: Fredericton is one of the areas where the Syrian immigrants will be located. There's a chance you could see someone here that you helped relocate.

Stephen Mills: We live in New Maryland and there is a family there.

Wendy Mills: We could see them at the gas station, or elsewhere. It's going to be nice.

Q: For some of the public who may not be sure about what has been happening, what would you say to them?

Stephen Mills: We are doing a really important thing. I think it's an important mission that will keep going on. We're trying to help these people.

Wendy Mills: You just put yourself in their shoes, like if you were in the same position. I really hope that a country would step up and help us as well as much as Canada has.

When you see that with young children, I don't know what I would do. To uproot yourself from your house and your work and to settle somewhere with nothing or whatever they have.

Q: Is there one image you take away from your experience there?

Stephen Mills: To see the looks in their faces. The happiness when they came in and left and they just knew that they were coming here.

At that point they were going on an airplane and getting to Canada, and we just knew that we were just a small part of that bigger piece that was making it happen.


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