CALAIS, France — From offensive T-shirts to bikini bottoms and a faux fur coat dyed gold, Hayley Smith surveys some of the useless donations that make up a "Wall of Shame" inside a refugee camp in France.
"These kinds of donations just take up space and waste the time of volunteers trying to sort through everything," Smith explained to the Deseret News.
Smith, a BYU graduate, has volunteered in several refugee camps and is back in France and Greece figuring out what items are actually needed by the refugees and some of the items may not make sense initially.
"They prefer black underwear. Why? Because they don't like seeing stains in their white underwear," said Smith who also explained that men are receiving far fewer donations than women and children.
"When people think refugee camp, they think babies and children and everybody wants to help children and so what's happening is a lot of donations are for children."
It is also extremely hard to wash clothes in these camps.
"I told someone about the underwear and they were like, 'Uh, beggars can't be choosers.' But these are civilized people and it isn't that much harder to give what they actually want and need."
"They prefer trainers to boots. Boots are really heavy and hard to walk in. Trainers are light and allow them to pass the time playing soccer," Smith said. She also pointed out the needs are different in every camp.
"I am going to ask for boots for the Idomeni camp in Greece. I know they need them there," she said.
Besides volunteering and translating, Smith is doing research for the nonprofit she founded after her first trip to camps in Greece in October.
Lifting Hands International works directly with NGOs on the ground in France, Greece and Germany to identify exactly what items are needed by Syrian refugees in the camps. Lifting Hands then makes it easy for people to purchase the high-priority items on Amazon and they handle shipping everything over to Europe in bulk.
It's an ambitious project that Smith, an officer manager, started on Facebook from her living room in Chandler, Arizona.
"I was just sitting there thinking, 'How am I going to make this work?'" she recalled. "'How is this going to work? I've only gotten a few boxes and I have 150 followers on Facebook and I've spent quite a bit of my own money shipping stuff over there,' but I just knew it was going to work out."
A few days later, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unveiled the "I Was a Stranger" effort encouraging Mormon women of all ages to assist refugees.
"I was so excited. My heart was just singing," she said.
Smith saw an immediate jump in the number of people following Lifting Hands International's Facebook page and then the donations started to arrive.
"This is out of control in a totally awesome way," she explained to the Deseret News before she left for Europe. On that day, piles of boxes from Amazon reached the ceiling and covered nearly every inch of Smith's living room. And that was just one day's shipment.
"I'm now getting pallets of donations everyday," she said.
Smith has since rented warehouse space for the nonprofit and it is filling quickly with the high-priority items needed in the camps like socks, tents, underwear and diapers. Lifting Hands volunteers have also created designated drop-off points for donations in nearly a dozen cities around the country.
"Just because the news has died down, just because you are not seeing images of drowned babies on the beach doesn't mean people aren't suffering just as much," she said.
Her desire to help the refugees fleeing Syria is personal.
"I started studying Arabic 10 years ago and ended up getting a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies," she said. Smith has lived in several different Arab countries and taught high school Arabic for a few years in Boston.
She said she was overwhelmed by the generosity "and just the feelings of sisterhood and family that I felt there."
Smith also credits Arabic for saving her life.
"In college I developed an eating disorder and I ended up dropping out of BYU and entering a treatment center for four months for treatment," she said.
When Smith got out of treatment, she found herself slipping back into the destructive behavior and sought out something else to focus on.
"I went to the library and went to the language section. It was the first section and I grabbed a book and the book was an introduction to Arabic letters and sound," she recalled. "I knew instantly I had found my passion."
Smith believes a lot of Americans don't understand the horrors that refugees are experiencing. "There is just complete destruction and a lot of them have lost family members and friends," she said.
During the current crisis unfolding in Europe, more people have been displaced than at any time since World War II, and though the problems seem insurmountable, Smith knows she can make a difference — with other people's help.
"I think a lot of people think, 'What can I do? There's nothing I can do to fix this problem, it's so big.' And it's true, we can't do much about it as one person. But that is why we do things together," Smith said.
"So the power of one, as long as we are combined, is absolutely powerful."
Editor's note: In the coming days, Smith will share experiences of visiting the camps in Europe at deseretnews.com.
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