It was a transformational trip, Purcellville Mayor Bob Lazaro said, and it reminded the successful politician that he – and anyone fortunate to have a roof over their head, a blanket at night and an adequate food supply – should “get down on [their] knees every evening and thank God for what we have.”
Lazaro was reflecting on a November journey to Turkey, during which he visited a Syrian refugee camp based in Adana (Turkey), approximately 120 miles from the Turkey-Syria border. Lazaro was joined by Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (R-At Large), who helped organize the trek hosted by the American Turkish Friendship Association, a Fairfax-based nonprofit group that encourages ties between Turkey and the U.S.
The refugee camp visited by the Loudoun officials is a transitional home to an estimated 12,000 people, more than half of whom are children, Lazaro said.
As many as 120,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced in the ongoing Syrian Civil War that began in the Arab Spring of 2011.
Upon their return stateside, Lazaro, York and several colleagues from the Northern Virginia Regional Commission launched a blanket drive for the Syrian refugees.
Late last month, that effort culminated in more than 15,000 blankets being sent to the war-torn region.
“It's humbling,” Lazaro said of his encounter with the refugees. In an interview with the Times-Mirror, Lazaro said, “These folks have arrived at the camp with nothing more than what they were wearing and carrying. It's something that's difficult to understand, to know that your own government is bombing your neighborhood.”
After meeting with Turkish officials, Lazaro said certain challenges he and other local leaders face are similar to those of governments overseas. Yet while some struggles are alike – transportation, planning, economic development – others are monumentally more severe.
“We live in a free country, and we need to be thankful for that,” Lazaro said. “People here are willing to help other folks out. Listening to some of the debate in America, 'whether a company should come to our community,' while other people are being displaced from their homes by their own government … we, of course, should be thankful.”
|These children are squatting in an unfinished apartment building in Reyhanli, Turkey, which is just across the border from Bab al-Hawa, Syria, one of the largest border crossings into and out of the country. Most of the windows are unfinished and open to the elements. Photo by/Thomas Hammond|
Gov. Bob McDonnell applauded the statewide effort earlier this month.
"The holiday season reminds all of us that it is incumbent that we help those in need in whatever ways we can,” McDonnell said.
After receiving the blankets, Paxton Van Lines of Springfield transported them to the Port of Virginia, where Maersk Line provided several containers to ship the blankets to Turkey free of charge, according to the governor's office. Maersk, whose U.S. headquarters is in Norfolk, loaded the blankets on one of its vessels out of the Port of Virginia and shipped the blankets to Algeciras, Turkey, before transporting them to Mersin, where a local aid group will distribute the blankets at the camp.
Said McDonnell, “Whether at home in the commonwealth or some far away nation, the donation of a blanket, a meal or a new toy can go a long way toward making the holidays a happier time for those in need. The donation of these blankets could not have come at a better time, as Turkey is seeing one of its worst winters on record.”
While the regional delegation that made the trip to Turkey knew they needed to find a way to help the refugees, they determined a blanket drive would be the most appropriate on the advice of a non-governmental organization familiar with the Syrian crisis.
It was a question, Lazaro said, of “how can we help these families and these 7,000 children.”
“As a parent, as a human being, you can't help but be moved by their circumstances,” the Purcellville mayor said.
Thousands of Syrians are expected to die from starvation this winter, according to numerous media outlets.
A U.N. spokesman on Jan. 7 told the Associated Press his organization can no longer calculate the death toll in Syria due to lack of reliable access, leaving the death toll at July's figure of 100,000.