What the U.S. Government Can Learn From Three 22-Year Olds on Taking Action For Iraqi Refugees

When President Barack Obama made his first sojourn to Iraq as commander-in-chief earlier this month, he was met with cheering U.S. troops and even, a new experience for our nation's leader as of late, a fairly warm response from Iraqis themselves (at least no shoes flew). Iraqis tuned in on home television sets and gathered at local cafes to watch President Obama, alongside Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at Camp Victory. But while Obama addressed the next year of big changes within Iraq, he made no mention of what is in store for those outside of it: the two million Iraqi refugees who have fled the violence and struggle in neighboring countries. As we withdraw troops in Iraq and continue the critical discussion about what real recovery means for the region, we must not overlook the massive refugee population -- so many women and children among them. The United Nations reports that about 4.8 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office issued a report for Congress titled Key Issues for Congressional Oversight. A paltry two out of the 56 pages of the report were devoted to the critical issue of Iraqi refugees: "The lack of reliable needs estimates impedes U.S. and international efforts to assist Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria. Neither country has enabled an independent and comprehensive survey of refugees to be undertaken." In other words, since the Jordanian and Syrian governments aren't painting an accurate picture of the needs of Iraqi refugees, we don't have the wherewithal to use our own imagination.

This would be a reasonable attitude if we were talking about a non-acute problem -- say, building an infrastructure for the Iraqi transportation system. Information gathering and strategic planning are generally the foundations of sound policy. But we're not talking about roads and bridges here; we're talking about living, breathing human beings who are right this moment struggling to find food for lunch, a school for their kids to go to tomorrow morning, and access to contraception so their family burden doesn't grow any larger. We don't have time to waste on pretty graphs. We need to help Iraqi refugees now.

Which is just what three enterprising students and alumnae from Williams College are doing with their innovative organization: Reclaim Childhood. With a $10,000 Davis Project for Peace grant, they helped Iraqi children living in Jordan reclaim their childhood in the summer of 2008 by providing four week long sports camps.

The effort began in 2008 when the two founders, 22-year-old Katherine Krieg and 22-year-old Anouk Dey, began talking about the key factors that had contributed to builiding their own self-esteem. Dey explains, "We decided, hands down, it was athletics. Knowing what sport had achieved in our own lives, we wanted to see what it could achieve on a larger scale."

Their mentor, Middle Eastern Studies Professor Magnus Bernhardsson, suggested that they set their sights on reclaiming childhood in a broader sense, namely by redefining women's gender roles. Having followed the Iraqi refugee crisis from the outset, it seemed a natural fit.

They were joined in Jordan by 22-year-old Deborah Bialis, a recent graduate of Williams, who had vast knowledge of running sports camps.

Some critics might call such an intervention frivolous at a time when refugees are in needs of so many basic services, but UN Special Advisor on Sport and Peace, Adolf Ogi, attests: "For refugee children and youth, there are few things more important than education and sport. They can make the difference between despair and hope."

The founders of Reclaim Childhood were worried when one mother in full burka showed up to camp and said that she didn't want her daughter playing any soccer because she feared it would interfere with her fertility. The mother sat outside the courtyard and scrutinized the coaches' every move as they showed the young girl how to shoot a lay-up instead. Each day the mother would return with her daughter and allow the coaches to introduce her to one new activity, watching like a hawk. On the last day of camp, the woman came up to the coaches and cried as she told them, "Mafi Mushkala," which means "no problem" in Arabic. She said that she wanted her daughter to learn English and be confident like the young women who were teaching her to play sports. She wanted her daughter to grow up and pursue a career, maybe even professional sports. Dey explains, "We're trying to expose these girls to a different lifestyle, not impose one, so these kinds of moments are really great for us."

Our government offices could learn a lesson or two from the founders of Reclaim Childhood when it comes to taking action without all the information at one's fingertips. Dey explains: "To be honest, we didn't have any real connections to Jordan and the Iraqis before this summer. What we did have was extreme guilt as North Americans for causing, indirectly, such a catastrophe. Once we came up with this idea, we did everything we could to contact people who could help us and, thankfully, many individuals put faith in our project."

While Reclaim Childhood runs a whole new series of camps this summer -- this time giving the refugee kids a chance to sleepover, get three solid meals a day, and have literacy opportunities during breaks from physical activity -- the Government Accountability Office promises to issue yet another report on the lack of open communication between massive bureaucracies and how it's stymied any substantial aid to Iraqi refugees.

Back in July, Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, the immigration policy chair for Barack Obama's campaign attested: "America has a moral and security responsibility to confront Iraq's humanitarian crisis. That's why the campaign has called for at least $2 billion to expand services to Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries and an international working group to address the crisis." Let's hope they make good on their promise, and that the working group comes up with a sustainable plan.

There's a place for research and preparation, certainly. There's also a time to respond to suffering, immediately and without delay. As Bialis, Dey, and Krieg have learned, listening to our most basic instincts to witness and alleviate suffering in the moment reconnects us with our own humanity -- made anemic by the constant pursuit of more information in this 24/7 news deluge.

If only the U.S. could experience that reconnection on a global scale more often, we'd be a far healthier nation.


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