Shoeboxes for Refugees

February 3, 2014 • Iraq

Syrian children who have experienced the terror of war receive joy when they open gifts sent from the U.S.

Alda Omer plays outside her father’s restaurant, jumping rope on the street as the scent of chicken shwarma and falafel drifts through the air. Not long ago, this simple childhood game wasn’t possible for 9-year-old Alda and her three siblings.

Help Syrian RefugeesAlda is one of tens of thousands of Syrian children forced to flee their homeland because of an outbreak of violence and now living in a refugee camp in northern Iraq.

Recently, thousands of refugee children like Alda experienced great joy packed inside ordinary shoeboxes. In late January, almost 70,000 Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts were airlifted from Charlotte, N.C., to be distributed to Syrian refugee children.

As Alda dug through her box, a huge grin spread across her petite face. Tucked inside, she found her brand new jump rope, and she quickly unfurled it and began to jump in the bright afternoon sun. Nearby, her 8-month-old sister, Elin, sucked on a brand new toothbrush. Her sister Shahnaz, 3, hugged a stuffed animal. Her brother, Delshad, 10, inspected a yo-yo and puzzle.

The jump rope she received in her shoebox restore some of the simple joys of childhood to Alda.

The jump rope she received in her shoebox restore some of the simple joys of childhood to Alda.

The delight was in sharp contrast to what they felt when they were forced to leave their home in Syria six months ago.

The family fled with little more than the few articles of clothing that they could carry. They left everything else behind—a restaurant, a house, toys, belongings, an entire life.

In August, they crossed the Syria-Iraq border and were given shelter in Kawergosk refugee camp near Erbil in northern Iraq. Slowly, they have been rebuilding a new life in a new land. Her father, Faher, has even been able to open a new restaurant—housed, like everything else, in a tent—inside the camp.

Thousands of Syrian Kurds have found shelter in the Kurdish region of Iraq in the months since, fleeing a bloody civil war in their homeland that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people, including more than 11,000 children.

Kawergosk is one of nine refugee camps in Iraq, with three more under construction. The 13,000 people there represent just 0.5 percent of more than 2.3 million Syrian refugees who have registered in UNHCR camps in neighboring Middle Eastern countries since a violent civil war broke out in Syria in the spring of 2011. Nearly half of the refugees are children under 18.

The camp has two elementary schools for younger children, and middle school students leave the camp to attend school in the surrounding town. There are no opportunities for high school students to continue their education.

Kawergosk camp is home to 13,000 refugees.

Kawergosk camp is home to 13,000 refugees.

Aside from going to school, there are between 4,000-6,000 children in Kawergosk camp like Alda, whose lives look far different from the ones they left when the bomb blasts and gunfire forced them from Syria. Instead of solid houses, they live in one of 1,200 white tents nestled in a valley.

There are no solid, permanent structures inside the chain link and barbed wire fence that outlines 103 acres of beige dirt and rocks. There are no trees or grass to provide relief from the monotonous neutral colors that dot the landscape. Every few feet, a water tank sits perched on top of an outhouse, and clothes are draped across lines between tents.

On the hilltops surrounding the valley, armed guards keep watch, protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Samaritan’s Purse was quick to send aid to the desperate people who were given shelter at Kawergosk camp and Arbat camp near Sulaymaniyah. In both camps, we distributed food, blankets, diapers, shoes, and warm winter coats to people who faced the winter cold with little more protection from the elements than the cloth and tarp of their tents.

Heyat's family received one of the 2,000 heaters provided by Samaritan's Purse.

Heyat’s family received one of the 2,000 heaters provided by Samaritan’s Purse.

Two thousand people in Kawergosk camp also received kerosene heaters to help them stay warm.

In Arbat camp, Samaritan’s Purse sponsored a sewing project that trains and equips women to earn a livelihood and help support their families. We also built a playground and soccer field in Arbat, so children who were forced to leave their toys behind will have a place to play—a small sliver of normality in their new surroundings.

The shoebox gifts were further evidence of God’s love to the children and their families.

Distributions in Kawergosk camp are nearly complete, and soon, the remaining gifts will be distributed in to children in Arbat and the other refugee camps in Iraq. Because of the unique situation, Operation Christmas Child distributed gift-filled shoeboxes to all children under 18 years old.

Alda and her siblings were all smiles when they opened their shoeboxes.

Alda and her siblings were all smiles when they opened their shoeboxes.

As Alda opened her box, all around the camp children could be found opening shoeboxes of all different shapes and sizes. Heyat Ali, 15, fled with her mother, three sisters, a mentally disabled brother, and a nephew. Her father and five other brothers are still in Syria, waiting for the border to open so they can join the family.

One day while they were still in Syria, an aircraft flew near their home and dropped a bomb.

“When I saw it, I was so scared because if the bomb fell on our house, it would all be destroyed,” said Heyat’s mother, Khokha. “Nobody would survive.”

15-year-old Heyat Ali received a shoebox in Kawergosk camp.

15-year-old Heyat Ali received a shoebox in Kawergosk camp.

“We heard the sound of the bombs,” Heyat said. “I saw people get shot and killed. I was so scared, and my mother was so scared, she decided to bring us out of there.”

As she opened her shoebox gift on the peaceful afternoon nearly three months after their escape, her clear brown eyes sparkled and dimples appeared on either side of her grin.

Mizgin, a translator, reads a letter from a girl named Megan that Heyat received in her box.

Mizgin, a translator, reads a letter from a girl named Megan that Heyat received in her box.

Heyat’s shoebox was from an 18-year-old girl named Megan, who lives in Watkinsville, Georgia. Several pairs of bright neon socks and sparkly bangles poked from the top of the box, nestled among soap, a bath sponge, and other toiletry items.

“The children love these things,” she said. “I really appreciate those people who are thinking of us and taking care of us, sending things for us.”

Her mother was grateful as well.

“We are very happy because the people here are very poor and need the help,” Khokha said.

Her family also received a heater from Samaritan’s Purse, which replaced another heater that didn’t work correctly.

The Ali family hopes that their relatives in Syria will remain safe and that they will soon join the rest of the family in the camp. Ultimately, like many others in the camp, they hope to return to a peaceful Syria.

Three hours away, close to 3,000 people live in Arbat refugee camp, the peaks of their tents mirroring the rolling foothills of the Zagros Mountains near the border with Iran. Mizgina lives with her husband and three sons on the outer edge of the camp.

“It’s difficult for us to live under the tent,” she said. “But, it’s much better than life in Syria, with a lot of groups fighting each other back and forth, killing people.”

The Samaritan's Purse sewing project has brought a means of making a living to Mizgina.

The Samaritan’s Purse sewing project has brought a means of making a living to Mizgina.

In the camp, Mizgina has found work and begun to build a livelihood through the Samaritan’s Purse sewing project. She proudly displayed a set of baby clothes that she recently completed.

She is learning sewing and knitting skills and now is hired by other families in the camp to make clothing and other necessities. Her clients provide the materials and pay her for the work when she finishes the pieces.

Last week she watched as her three sons joyfully opened their shoeboxes. During the war in Syria, her husband was imprisoned, and she said he was tortured there for more than a month. When he was released, the family fled to Arbat camp.

“These gifts mean that there are still people who care and want to make my children happy,” she said.

Middle East Relief Samaritan’s Purse is providing a variety of relief to families who have fled violence or been affected by natural disasters. We also support local ministry partners throughout the region as they provide physical relief in Jesus’ Name to suffering people.

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