News Stories, 12 June 2013
DOMIZ REFUGEE CAMP, Iraq, June 12 (UNHCR) – The pretty young girl looked confused when the aid worker came to her tent and held out a cardboard box. It contained a doll and a card, and when she realized it was for her, nine-year-old May's face melted into a smile of delight. The thing she had missed most after fleeing her home in Damascus was her doll, Nancy, and now someone on the other side of the world had sent her a replacement. The gesture gave her hope in humanity.
The touching drama took place earlier this week, bringing together Syrian refugee May in northern Iraq and a five-year-old British girl called Mimi Fowler, whose family live in Thailand. By chance, she found out about May's story in a set of photographs taken by American Brian Sokol for the UN refugee agency and run earlier this year in major media outlets and on the UNHCR global website.
"I did not expect to get a doll from Mimi, but I am so happy to hear about a new friend who cares about me," May told UNHCR staff at Domiz Refugee Camp as she hugged her toy and read the letter from Thailand. "This doll reminds me of my old doll, Nancy, which was left behind in Syria. I will call my new doll Mimi, in honour of my new friend."
Mimi's mother Nilufar told UNHCR in Bangkok the story of how they came to send a gift to a total stranger in a foreign land. She recalled that she was watching the TV news one day in March when a segment about the situation in Syria came up. It included images of children in Syria. "Mimi is always interested in hearing about other children's lives . . . and started asking questions about who they were and why they looked so sad," Nilufar said.
The young girl wanted to find out more and so her mother went online and came across Sokol's acclaimed and powerful photo set, "The Most Important Thing," about the objects Syrian refugees took with them into exile. It included an image of a sad-looking May, who says she had to leave behind her doll in the rush to escape from Syria last August.
"Mimi kept asking questions about May and whether she was sad that she had left her doll behind, and whether she was going to be able to get another doll, to which the answer was clearly, 'Probably not,'" Nilufar said, adding that the next day Mimi came to her with her piggy bank "and asked if we could take the money out to buy May a doll."
The British girl was adamant that they must buy a new doll for May rather than send her one of Mimi's old ones. Nilufar said it was "heartbreaking to think of this little girl missing her 'friend' so much. So if she [Mimi] wanted to do such a nice thing, I felt that I needed to help her make it happen." Nilufar could also identify with May and her family because her own mother is an ethnic Tamil from northern Sri Lanka's Jaffna region and had to flee her home several times in the early years of the 1983-2009 civil war in the South Asian island nation.
Finding a suitable doll proved quite difficult, Nilufar said. "I was terrified that if we sent something culturally insensitive, May would never get her new Nancy. So it needed to be something obviously child-like – so no Barbies or Disney Princesses – solid, and covered up. It took a while, but we got the right one in the end."
The doll was handed over to UNHCR's office in Bangkok at the start of a long journey to Domiz and May. UNHCR Public Information Officer Babar Baloch hand carried the toy to Geneva, attracting some strange looks en route. Then another colleague took the doll to Amman in Jordan, where it began its final journey this week to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where Domiz is located.
May's own journey to Domiz camp was not as long but it was more dangerous, eventful and traumatic. She was born and brought up in the Syrian capital, Damascus. The war came to their district last year, when their apartment block was hit by a series of explosions.
May, her parents and her three younger siblings dashed for safety before the building collapsed, burying their belongings, including the precious doll, Nancy. She managed to salvage some bracelets, which she told photographer Sokol were the most important thing she managed to take away. The family stayed in a mosque for almost three weeks before deciding to leave Syria.
It took two days by car to reach the border, some 800 kilometres away. They walked for two hours to cross into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where they were registered and directed to the camp. Being ethnic Kurds helped. "It is very difficult to restart your life after everything is lost, but we finally felt safe and welcomed by the people of Kurdistan," said May's mother, Hyat.
In Domiz camp, they shared a tent with three other families for a while, but have had their own for about six months. May's father works as a driver for a supermarket chain in the city of Erbil, some 170 kilometres away. But he visits once a month, bringing sweets for his adoring children. His salary helps the family. May, meanwhile, attends school in the camp and is doing very well.
Her favourite subjects are languages – Arabic, Kurdish and English. She dreams about becoming a doctor specializing in caring for children. But though she has many friends in the camp of 40,000 people, she did not have any toys – until this week.
That's why the gift from Mimi is all the sweeter. And to know that someone outside cares for her and her family, is a huge boost to this bright young girl. "I have never met Mimi, but she is so kind and I already like her. I wish one day we could meet and play together," she said, adding that the new doll and Mimi's letter were now her most cherished possessions.
By Natalia Prokopchuk in Domiz Refugee Camp, Iraq and Vivian Tan in Bangkok, Thailand