The Assyrian Journal | December 2017 | Photos contributed | By Joe Snell
Erbil, Iraq – They may not have been home for the holidays, but for thousands of displaced children in Northern Iraq, Christmas spirit remains thanks to an annual gift giving campaign that all began when a girl, recently evacuated from her home in Nineveh, asked a volunteer if Santa was going to visit her.
“We were not planning on doing this event,” said Savina Dawood, a co-founder of the Etuti Institute that organizes the project. “It started when this girl asked me if Santa was still coming this year. I didn’t answer her, I just asked what she would like Santa to get her. She said a doll and that’s how we thought of this event.”
That same year, ISIS began overtaking towns in Northern Iraq and many residents were forced into Internally Displaced People (IDP) buildings hundreds of miles north of Baghdad. At the time, Dawood was part of a small group of roughly ten volunteers that were bringing supplies to an IDP building in Erbil, one of several IDP declared buildings in the area.
When asked by children in the building if Santa was going to visit them, the volunteers responded by each dressing as Santa. They surprised 50 children between the ages of newborn to 12 years old with presents from money they gathered among themselves.
Although the group couldn’t afford to purchase a tree and lights for the simple event, they bought big white sheets of paper and decorated them with stickers and paint.
A projector, screen, and speakers were donated and after the gift giving and decorating, children watched cartoons, something they hadn’t had access to in months. Afterwards, they were taught that Christmas is about more than just receiving gifts.
“We explained that Christmas is not about getting new clothes,” Dawood said. “For these kids, none of that was actually possible. We explained that it’s about being friends to one another, about helping one another and giving somebody who doesn’t have something and helping them in anything they need.”
CHRISTMAS SPIRIT GROWS IN NORTHERN IRAQ
A group called “Help Iraq” heard about the group’s efforts and their founder, Rafed Yaldo, met with Dawood and offered $10,000 with the request that they take Santa to other places in the region.
Etuti’s volunteers researched areas that were not receiving any gifts and settled on Alqosh, a region 30 miles north of Mosul. Dawood spoke to a priest in the region about making an announcement at church an expected a decent turnout.
With just two days’ notice and only the church announcement and word of mouth, 3,500 children as well as their parents and siblings arrived to collect gifts and watch cartoons.
“This was the first time we saw this many children at the same time so we kind of freaked out,” Dawood said. With no room to decorate and barely any space to move, the volunteers – each still dressed as Santa – quickly created a system to distribute the gifts.
The Alqosh experience proved to be a major step toward developing the new Christmas project.
The group began to travel to other regions, including Sharafiya located in the Nineveh Plains, and used Christian churches as a network to announce when they would be coming, often with only days’ notice.
By this time, other organizations began hearing about the campaign and offered to donate.
“We didn’t make a campaign or ask anyone for gifts, people heard from other people,” Dawood said. “It was amazing and it was beautiful.”
SUPPORTING THE YAZIDIS
In 2015, Dawood and her Santa volunteers set a lofty goal: to gift every IDP Camp in Erbil and the surrounding regions. That tour kickstarted in February 2015 with the Yazidis.
The displaced Yazidi’s were broken up into two camps that faced each other in the Dohuk Province of Northern Iraq. These camps comprised of tight tents sitting in light dirt. Often, tents and belongings were covered in mud from previous rains. In total, over 4,000 children were in both camps.
“We did not want to wear Christmas clothes because it was not Christmas and also we did not want to impose our beliefs on them because they are a different religion,” Dawood said. “We were just there to give them gifts and to give the children some joy.”
The Santa volunteers had since December grown to nearly fifteen individuals from across the world, including members from Iran, Iraq, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Egypt, and Holland. Before the event, these volunteers traveled the camps asking what kind of toys the children wanted and making sure the toys would not put the children in danger.
“We were not sure whether to buy them a ball or not because we weren’t sure if it would put them in an insecure playing situation,”Dawood said. “We had to ask camp management.”
The event was so big and the weather conditions so rough (the event took place during a rain storm) that it had to be divided between multiple days.
“The second day, it was raining like hell. We all were soaked in the mud and it was so fun and exciting,” Dawood said. “It was beautiful.”
In 2016, ISIS began retreating in the Nineveh Plains. Christmas returned to the region for the first time in years and the Christmas campaign Santa’s wanted to mark the occasion by concentrating their gifts on the families that had returned to the liberated area.
Nearly twenty volunteers traveled to seven different villages and took a week to distribute all of the gifts. In some villages, the destruction from ISIS was so bad that no church or community space was left available to gather, so the Santas had to go knocking door to door to hand out gifts.
Since 2014, over 17,000 children have been provided gifts as part of Etuti’s “Christmas Spirit” campaign. They plan to add another 4,000 children this Christmas.
ETUTI’S 2017 CHRISTMAS CAMPAIGN
For this year’s campaign, Etuti is looking to raise $40,000 by Christmas. The campaign is asking for $10 from at least 4,000 individuals globally and Dawood equates donating $10 to buying a large drink at Starbucks.
“Just think of it as one child in Nineveh the same way as you’re buying gifts for your children this Christmas in America,” she said.
The Christmas project is not an official Etuti project. Instead, it is something extra the organization does during the holidays and Dawood may be the perfect person to lead the project.
She remembers growing up with little money and having to make decorations on their Christmas tree from items at home, including match boxes they would color and wrap with small items.
No Santa ever visited her growing up, she admits, and now she is surrounding by dozens every Christmas.
To learn more about Etuti’s Christmas campaign and to donate, visit Etuti Christmas Campaign
Etuti, a non-profit founded in 2013, shifted its focus to aiding IDPs shortly after the ISIS invasion in 2014. The organization aims to bring children and youth together to build generations of new leaders within Northern Iraq’s communities. The organization runs nine formal projects spanning education, human rights, careers and sports workshop among others.
Learn more about Etuti Institute