Medical Students Hold Charity Drive for Refugees

      Thursday, October 10. Children gather, curious, at the gate as a red bus rolls into the Arbat Refugee Camp.  Teeth glint white on grimy faces framed by tangled hair as the children smile at the people inside.  When the bus comes to a halt somewhere at the edges of the camp, the children crowd around it.

      Twenty young men and women step out, to be instantly absorbed by the swarm of curious, shouting children.  The young men and women are medical students from the University of Sulaimania and volunteers with the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) in Kurdistan.  The children are refugees from Syria, displaced from the Qamishli area by war and relocated with more than 1100 others – young and old alike – to the camp at Arbat in August.

“Why are you here?” one girl, dressed all in red to match her sun-burnt cheeks, asks a volunteer.

“To bring you clothes for Eid,” the volunteer replies.

The girl’s eyes widen as she absorbs that information.

“You mean you celebrate Eid here too?” she asks, incredulous.  “I thought we only did that in Syria.”

      The IFMSA staff spends the rest of the afternoon exploring the camp.  Aside from the bags of clothes for the children, they’ve also brought notebooks and pens to record what they observe.  Their primary aim is to find serious medical cases among the refugees and look for ways to relieve them.

      Women in long dresses are preparing lunches  made of potatoes and rice as the students walk between rows of white tents erected by the UNHCR.  Wherever the volunteers stop, they are welcomed into the tents — tiny, make-shift apartments with neatly stacked belongings in the corners.  

      Shoes are taken off before the volunteers step onto dusty carpets, and more than one family offers to share a meager lunch.  Within these tents – homes created from necessity, not desire – the students are strangers, and hospitality to strangers is not soon left behind in the Middle East, not even amid the rubble of real homes destroyed by war.

      Sitting cross-legged inside cramped tents, the members of the IFMSA listen and take notes.  Here, a child with congenital heart defect needs surgery her family can’t afford.  There, a man with a hip-bone fractured in flight can’t work to provide for his family.  Flies buzz and babies whine.  As the volunteers prepare to go home, one thing is evident: the need is great; the financial means to relieve it, small.

      One week later, on Wednesday, Oct 16, the IFMSA staff has set up a charity drive for the refugees at the CDO building near Azadi Park.  The charity drive is part of the larger, ongoing Hana Campaign, a project set up by the IFMSA-Kurdistan to bring financial and medical aid to the refugees at the Arbat Camp.  Advertised mainly by the IFMSA staff themselves through social media such as Facebook, this particular drive is to collect money and meat sacrificed for Eid – because Eid is not just celebrated in Syria.

      “In the spirit of the holiday, a lot of people will want to donate meat to those who need it most,” says one volunteer.  “The refugees [whose food rations include dried protein powder but no real meat] are among the most needy.  We’re hoping to collect enough to give each family a share.”

      Besides a fridge to keep the meat, the volunteers also have a donation box for money ready.  Altogether, the day’s donations bring in about 300 kg of meat, 2,136,500 ID, and $1565.  A few members of the IFMSA take the meat down to Arbat as soon as the charity drive closes.  The money is locked away for now.

      “This is just phase one of the Hana Campaign,” says a volunteer.  “Over the next few months, there will be drives at the universities and public places in Sulaimania to collect more money.  Hopefully, the money will cover some of the costs of treatment and surgeries [for the refugees].  A meeting with the Ministry of Health will determine exactly how we’ll spend it, depending on the most serious cases and those with the highest need for financial aid.”

       Eid is not just celebrated in Syria, but charity extends beyond a holiday.  If refugees in a foreign country can show hospitality to strangers, how much more should those who call that foreign country home do?

By: Narin Suleyman
From: Sulaimani, Iraq