Local officials, volunteers launch expanded effort to help Syrian refugees

Former Purcellville mayor Robert W. Lazaro and Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (center background, both in glasses) at a refugee camp in Turkey, handing out blankets collected last fall. (Courtesy of Northern Virginia Regional Commission)
Former Purcellville mayor Robert W. Lazaro and Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (center background, both in glasses) at a refugee camp in Turkey, handing out blankets collected last fall. (Courtesy of Northern Virginia Regional Commission)


Date posted: November 7, 2014

CAITLIN GIBSON

With winter fast approaching, officials and volunteers across Northern Virginia are mobilizing a second annual effort to help Syrian refugees by collecting donated blankets — this time, with a broader reach and a more ambitious goal.

Officials in Loudoun and Fairfax counties organized the first blanket drive last year, after several local politicians, including Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) and former Purcellville mayor Robert W. Lazaro, visited a refugee camp in Turkey and said that they were profoundly affected by what they saw: Thousands of Syrian refugees, many of them children, all crowded together in a sea of small tents.

As the weather grew cold, the refugees were in urgent need of blankets to keep warm, the officials were told. So they decided to launch a blanket drive with the help of volunteers and nonprofit groups, setting up about a dozen donation sites in Fairfax and Loudoun and ultimately collecting more than 18,000 blankets.

Since then, the number of Syrian refugees flooding across the border into Turkey has increased dramatically, with more than a million scattered across scores of refu­gee camps and border towns, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

“The need is there . . . and so we decided to go ahead and do another drive this year, similar to what we did last year, only with more time and the ability to get other jurisdictions involved,” York said. “Our goal is a significant increase over what we did last year.”

York said he’d like to see the drive collect 100,000 blankets this year.

“We are a region of over 2 million people,” York said, adding that if every household in Loudoun alone contributed one blanket, the goal would be exceeded. “So this goal is very doable within the entire region.”

More than 30 collection sites are set up across Northern Virginia, including drop-off locations in Prince William, Fairfax, Loudoun and Stafford counties, as well as Arlington County, Alexandria, Falls Church and Dumfries. The sites began accepting donations Saturday and will continue to do so through noon Nov. 22, officials said.

“People saw what we did last year and said, ‘Hey, we want to help,’ ” Lazaro said. “We’re very fortunate to have people understand that the need is even greater now.”

The local effort has also expanded to include hundreds of volunteers from many community organizations and religious groups across the region, he said.

Lazaro and York, along with Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton, Prince William County Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) and Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D), first visited the camp in Adana, about 120 miles from the Syrian border, during an October 2013 cultural-exchange trip to Turkey. The officials were guests of the American Turkish Friendship Association, a Fairfax-based nonprofit organization that aims to bolster ties between the two countries.

Lazaro and York returned to Turkey this year to help distribute the blankets that were collected last fall. Lazaro said he would not soon forget the experience.

“You come from a place like Northern Virginia into this camp, and you’re so moved,” he said. “All the stories of all the people that you meet, they’re just heart-wrenching.”

Lazaro said he was particularly touched by a conversation with a displaced policeman, who was sharing a 10-square-foot tent with his wife and four children after the family was forced to flee their home — leaving their eldest daughter behind.

She wasn’t home when they had to leave, Lazaro said, and they didn’t have time to find her.

“Now you have these people all over the community, living under bridges, with multiple families in apartments, in makeshift housing, anywhere they can stay warm,” Lazaro said. “And there’s an overwhelming number of children.”

After the Nov. 22 deadline, the collected blankets will be shipped to Turkey, where they will be distributed to refugees in the camp and the broader community by nongovernmental aid organizations, Lazaro said.

In the dire circumstances faced by many refugees, Lazaro said, a blanket might not seem like much, but with no imminent resolution to the ongoing violence and turmoil, even the most fundamental assistance matters.

“What these people really want, frankly, is just to go home,” Lazaro said. “They just want to go back to their families and their lives. And in many respects, there is nothing left . . . but you do what you can.”

New and gently used blankets, cleaned and folded, will be collected at sites across Northern Virginia through Nov. 22. Information about the blanket drive is at www.helpsyrianrefugees.us


 

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.

Source: The Washington Post , November 5, 2014


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