The conflict in Syria may not be in the news as much today, but the faces of refugees who have fled for their lives remain fresh in the mind of Somerset resident Terri Crisp, 57.
A longtime employee and volunteer with different animal welfare organizations, Crisp has been making trips to Iraq since 2005 on behalf of a program called Operation Baghdad Pups sponsored by the SPCA International (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).
A program that attracted criticism last year after it was discovered that most of the money donated to the program went to a fundraising agency, Operation Baghdad Pups reunites cats and dogs with their former owners — usually U.S. soldiers and contractors who weren’t able to bring them home when they left the country.
On their last trip in October, SPCA volunteers brought back 18 animals, including nine dogs used to detect explosives that are no longer needed by their security companies. In addition, volunteers did a trap, neuter and release program for the U.S. Consulate. According to Crisp, a total of 516 animals have been brought to the United States from Iraq via the program.
Crisp said the plight of the Syrian refugees came to the attention of the SPCA workers almost by accident while they were staying in Erbil, Kurdistan. Kurdistan is a self-governing region within greater Iraq. When there, Crisp said she and other SPCA volunteers stay in the home of the security company that moves the animals for them. Right behind the house is a family owned market where they frequently shop. Over time they have come to know the family that owns the shop, including a young member of the family named Delan Yousif, who recently got a new job working for UNICEF.
“Delan greeted us with a big grin one day,” said Crisp, “saying he had a new job monitoring the food situation at a refugee camp. I had never seen so much enthusiasm out of him. He asked us if we would like to go to the refugee camp that was right outside of Erbil. So one day, three of us went with him.”
Called the Kawergosk Refugee Camp, Crisp said it is one of six in Kurdistan and is now home to 12,400 people, all from Syria. According to the U.N., an estimated 2 million Syrians have fled the country and millions more have been displaced due to the ongoing conflict. “The first day they reopened the border, 30,000 Syrians crossed into Kurdistan,” she said. “Some came with just the clothes on their back.”
UNICEF runs the refugee camp in collaboration with Save the Children, the World Health Organization, the U.N. refugee program, and the Kurdistan government. With few men in the camp, the population is mainly made up of women, children and the elderly. Crisp said more than half of those in the camp are children with three-fourths of them younger than 11.
For many of these people, there is no longer a place for them to return to, said Crisp. “Their homes are gone, jobs scarce and the government is in shambles. Some may feel they are better off in refugee camp where at least they’re fed and have a roof over their heads. Many have never traveled outside of their own village.”
Crisp said when she and the others toured the camp, and then returned a second time a few days later, she worried the people would shun them because of negative feelings towards Americans. “But it was just the complete opposite,” she continued, saying they even allowed her to take their picture.
“Most adults didn’t want their picture taken, but the kids loved it,” she said. “I was starting to take a picture of one little boy, but the grandmother shook her finger, saying no. Then she took him over to the water spigot, washed his face and then brought him back and gave me the thumbs up to take his picture. And he wasn’t even that dirty. That was the thing that surprised me, how clean the children were and how clean the camp was. All the washing of dishes and clothes is done by hand. The elderly women even sweep the dirt around the tents to keep it as clean as possible.
“But now that it’s starting to rain and get cold, life is going to get very, very difficult for them. There is no place people can go except the tents. With the average family having five children along with adults, that’s a lot of people together. Men were digging trenches to divert water around the tents, but the question is where the washing and cooking will be done. People will get sick. They’ve already had a polio outbreak in another camp and there was a hepatitis outbreak at this one. Over the winter it’s going to get tougher. During the summer it was as well. In August it was 120 degrees, and with no shade and only the tents. It had to be brutal.”
Crisp said some of the camp children haven’t been to school for two years. They have school time for a several hours a day, she noted, but with no desks, chairs, paper or other supplies, teaching largely consists of just playing games and singing songs. “These children are having a big chunk of their lives taken away,” she said. “I can’t imagine the worry, uncertainty and helplessness of their parents because nothing is worse than feeling you can’t take care of your children.”
Haunted by the experience and by the children in the camp, Crisp said that since coming home she’s been thinking what she could do for them when she returns in late January or February of next year. “What can we do to keep these children alive?” she kept asking herself. “What can I bring them?”
She knew their most immediate need was for heavy coats and shoes to get them through the winter. “Many of the children only have flip-flops and UNICEF and Save the Children don’t have enough money to buy shoes and coats for everyone,” she said. She also thought of bringing them toys, but knew it would take an entire plane to bring toys for all the kids. Then she remembered that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, children were given crayons and pads of paper to help them deal with the trauma of what they were going through.
“It may seem frivolous,” she said, “but these are children. Occasionally a child in the camp has a toy, but most don’t. Some take a plastic jug, flatten it, and turn it into a toy. Some use sticks to play with. Girls take twine from the rice bags and weave them to make bracelets. Crayons and paper would give them a way to express what they’re going through.”
Crisp said she approached Crayola for a donation but the company is inundated with similar requests, adding that they only give to schools and special needs children.
So now she and other SPCA volunteers are trying to collect 5,000 boxes of crayons and pads of paper to take with them when they return to Kurdistan. “The real purpose of the trip is to rescue more dogs, but I also plan to make several trips to the camp,” she said, adding that her daughter Megan, 21, will also be along to help.
Looking for assistance, Crisp said she prefers that people who want to help send boxes of crayons and pads of paper to her at PO Box 34, Somerset, 95684; or contact her at [email protected]; or at Refugee Crayons on Facebook. She asked that those who want to make a cash donation, do so instead to UNICEF or Save the Children.
“I’m hoping a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop may also want to help as part of a project,” she said. “I may also set up a table outside Walmart and solicit boxes of crayons and paper that way.
“The next time I go, I also want to try to gather more stories from people about how they ended up in the camp and take more photos. I just feel that I need to share this,” she said, adding, “You can’t go and see it and not be affected by it.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.