Buy a Blanket

You may have noticed my support for Rise Foundation. In this post I’ll explain to you how and why I decided to partner with them and launch a campaign to help IDPs in Iraq survive winter by buying blankets for just US$16 each.

The Problem

More than a million people who fled persecution by Daesh/ISIS/IS face a harsh winter living rough in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with nothing to keep them warm.

Children whose tent washed away, sheltering under a single blanket. Photo by a camp resident.

Children whose tent washed away, sheltering under a single blanket. Photo by a camp resident.

Over 1.3 million victims of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have fled to the safety of Iraq’s Kurdish north. The western province of the Kurdistan Region, Dohuk, is hardest hit. Normally home to 1.3 million people, because of its proximity to the conflicts, it is now supporting at least 820,000 displaced Syrians and Iraqis, most of whom arrived since August this year. You can read more about this in Mariam’s story.

Most of the IDPs fled at the height of summer and have only the light clothing they were wearing when they ran. The United Nations has assessed that at least 146,000 of these displaced people are at serious risk. Translated into non-NGO speak, this means that the youngest, sickest and oldest will die this winter unless they have the means to keep themselves warm.

The Campaign

Buy a blanket for US$16/£11/€13 to help a family keep its most vulnerable members warm this winter. http://rise-foundation.org/buyablanket/

A friend of mine reached an agreement with a factory in Turkey to supply and deliver high quality, thick, double blankets for US$16 each. Local government officials agreed to facilitate these across the border into the Kurdistan Region, where Rise Foundation will receive and distribute them to the areas of greatest priority.

Why Blankets?

The cheapest and fastest way to keeRise-buyablanket-POSTER-LOWp the most people warm.     

  • Blankets are portable, allowing us to help communities that are not yet settled.
  • Blankets are cheaper than stoves and faster and easier to buy and distribute than clothes.
  • Culturally, most people in the region use only blankets as bedding, sleeping on simple foam mattresses on the floor.
  • Refugees/IDPs themselves asked mainly for blankets.
  • Blankets do not have the same safety risks as stoves in tents. Three children have already died as a result of a tent fire in a camp, as their parents tried to keep them warm at night.
  • A donation of US$16 is affordable for most people who want to help, allowing everybody the possibility to give what they can and know that their generosity has, entirely by itself, affected an entire family.

N.B. We took great care, when sourcing the blankets, to make sure that we didn’t just go for cheap, but for warm. The ones we selected are popular in the region and will keep two adults or three children warm on a cold night.

Why Rise Foundation?

Transparent, efficient, professional, fast-moving, no overheads on this project: Every penny/cent donated goes on blankets.

I was frustrated by much of what I saw in the aid sector in Kurdistan. After attending a distribution of unsolicited toys, shipped half way round the world at great cost, and distributed by well-meaning volunteers, which ended up in a near-riot between townspeople and a refugee camp, and with police officers beating children with sticks, I realised that it takes more than good will to actually do good in this situation. It requires experience and professionalism.

On the other hand I was shocked when I gained some insight on the ground into the hyper-bureaucracy of many large, well-known international organisations. So much of their time and money goes on writing reports, holding meetings, providing security to international staff, salaries and marketing. They also source most of their goods from far away, meaning urgent aid arrives months too late and with incredibly high shipping costs. Neither do government agencies seem willing to help. In a meeting with the British Department for International Development (DfID) officials in October I was informed that while they had a £13 million budget for Iraq, they couldn’t spend it right then because of political issues (Iraqi and British).

Blog BAB 2So I decided to partner with registered charity Rise Foundation for the following reasons:

  • They are intelligent, insightful and experienced; they are capable of making the right assessments of what is needed and where.
  • They are honest and trustworthy and all of their accounting is fully transparent.
  • They are relatively small and efficient, and for this project all of their overheads have been paid, meaning that all money donated goes directly on blankets, not on administration.
  • They co-ordinate well with other NGOs and government departments inside Kurdistan so that efforts don’t overlap.
  • They are religiously and politically unaffiliated and base distributions on to needs-assessments only.

Final Thoughts

This campaign enables people from all around the world to make a significant impact on the lives of innocent people caught up in terrible circumstances beyond their control. For many of the most vulnerable, a single blanket could be the difference between life and death this winter.

I realise that the ‘your x amount of dollars/pounds can do this’ is a hackneyed phrase in charitable appeals, but in this case it absolutely means that, because every US$16 donated is guaranteed to buy a blanket.

When the first distribution of 5,000 blankets is made, Rise Foundation will make sure that somebody takes a picture of every single person who receives a blanket. With some technical assistance we hope to be able to display this to all of our donors (sign up for email updates after you’ve donated and they’ll send you things like that direct).

How you can help

Donate and spread the word. #buyablanket.

Obviously our first request is that you donate money (click here).

But we also need you to spread the word, because greater understanding of the issues, and personal recommendation is key to raising awareness and support for this endeavour. If you believe in our campaign, please become an ambassador for it and sent this post out as an email to your friends, or create your own message about why you believe this is an opportunity to make a little bit of money go a long way to help people in great need.

Please also spread the word on social media. You can use the posters from this post on both twitter and Facebook, and the hashtag #buyablanket. You can contact me on my facebook page if you have any further questions.

Blog BAB 1

One of Rise Foundation’s projects has been to distribute food on a weekly basis to displaced families living in unfinished buildings around Erbil.

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Qahar

Qahar 2Qahar lives in Babire, a small mountain village in Kurdistan framed with orchards of pomegranates and apples and gardens full of pumpkins, courgettes, aubergines, melon and cucumbers. Qahar retired from the Peshmerga to return to village life, spending his days drinking tea with friends, tending his garden and helping his neighbours out with repairs. He recently come out of retirement, however, and will be returning to his unit to help with the fight against Da’esh (ISIS). Qahar’s passion is his partridges, and every visitor has to see them. He opens the door to his shed and asks me to take pictures of the birds in their homemade wooden cages. The shed is immaculate and the partridges plump. We ask what he uses them for. “Hunting.” replies Qahar. He uses them as bait to entice other partridges. But he would never kill his own partridges – they are his pride and joy. As we leave, his wife tells us that he keeps a further two in the house, which he keeps as pets. Hunting is just an excuse for Qahar to keep his beloved birds. DSC_0379

Festival of Sacrifice

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Muslim pilgrims on the Hajj circle the Kaaba in Mecca.

On the evening of the 10th day of the last month of the Islamic year (Dhu Al-Hijja), Muslims begin a two day celebration known as Eid Al-Adha – Festival of the Sacrifice. This marks the end of the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage of Muslims around the world to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Eid Al-Adha celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God’s command. The Old Testament story tells that God intervened at the last minute to save Ishmael, and gave Abraham (known as Ibrahim in Islam) a lamb to sacrifice instead.

On the first evening of Eid, Muslim families traditionally slaughter an animal and prepare a feast for the following day. On the main day of celebrations, they travel around their community visiting each other and receiving hospitality and food.

This year, celebrations in Iraqi Kurdistan were muted. Much like Christmas in the West, shops in the run-up to Eid would normally do a roaring trade in sweets, gifts and clothes. This week, however, traders in the Souq were wheeling around wooden carts still heavily laden with sweets, complaining that nobody was coming to buy them. Not only is the economic hardship, caused by a financial dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, hitting people hard (most government employees have not been paid in months), but the current conflict with Daesh (ISIS) casts a heavy shadow over the region. Few felt like celebrating.

Funeral of a Peshmerga solider, one of dozens killed in recent battles with Daesh (ISIS).

Funeral of a Peshmerga solider, one of dozens killed in recent battles with Daesh (ISIS).

I spent Eid in Dohuk – one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s three provinces, and the one hit hardest by the influx of refugees from the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in Iraq. My host family put on traditional clothes and kept a basket of sweets for children going door to door, but otherwise spent the day in muted relaxation; far from their usual programme of non-stop guests, all-day tea-boiling and gastronomic over-indulgence.

“This is no time for celebration. Every family knows somebody who has lost a relative fighting Da’esh. How can we celebrate, with such unhappiness everywhere?”

The Battle for Shingar

The main problems with press coverage of the fight with Daesh (ISIS) in the north of Iraq are the absence of decent maps (the BBC one is just plain wrong) and the western press’s general lack of understanding of the strategic and geographical issues in play (with some notable exceptions – see further reading below). Here’s a very basic outline to help explain.KRG map

Where is Kurdistan? The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is an autonomous region of northern Iraq. It has its own parliament, army (Peshmerga) and domestic security force (Asayish). Then there are the areas outside of their borders where the population are mostly Kurds, but they do not come under KRG administration. These are often known as the Disputed Territories.

Why the dispute? This strip of land contains many billion barrels of oil beneath its surface, which both the central Iraqi government and the KRG would like the profits of. For the KRG however, it runs deeper – control of Mosul, Kirkuk and the areas around them would allow the KRG to look after their fellow Kurds.

Why do Daesh want this area? Primarily oil. Selling oil on the black market brings in millions of dollars a day, allowing them to recruit, fight and function like a state army.

But why Sinjar in particular? Sinjar, or as the Kurds call it, Shingar, is actually a region as well as a town. West of Mosul, it helps Daesh to shore up the link between Syria and areas of more solid Sunni Arab support. It also gives them access to Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul.

Shingar is also the homeland of the Yezidis, who are a religious minority persecuted by Daesh for their beliefs. When Shingar fell to Daesh, many Yezidis fled to Syria or Erbil, but geography forced some of them up Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped for many days. This is inhospitable terrain, especially in the height of summer, and those trapped on the mountain suffer greatly.

Blog Shingar

Graphic from the Washington Post. A little confusing as it’s the view from the West, but helps to understand the terrain. The red line at the bottom is the border with Syria.

Military Strategy In the battle for Shingar, there are several strategically important towns; Zumar (Zummar), Sinjar (Sincar, Shingar) and Rabi’a (Rabia). Whoever controls these, controls access to the whole area.

Interactive Daesh map

Excellent New York Times map.

Fierce fighting continues in Rabi’a and Zumar and control changes regularly. The Peshmerga sustained significant casualties in the battles for these towns but today have regained control of Rabi’a. It is expected that they will progress to Shingar soon.

On a lighter note, Zagros TV just showed Peshmerga delightedly holding up fake beards they had taken off Daesh fighters killed in the battle for Rabi’a.

Further references This New York Times interactive graphic is about the best and most accurate map I’ve come across, and although it’s from 2009, descriptions of the ethnic, strategic and political issues are pretty spot on. This Al Jazeera video gives you an impression of the battle around Zumar. This Washington Post series of graphics illustrates things from the perspective of US air strikes.