World Vision marshaling aid for Iraq's war refugees


Staff writer

A week before the outbreak of war in Iraq, World Vision loaded three 10-ton trucks along with other relief supplies onto a chartered Ilyushin heavy transport plane.

Departing from the organization’s warehouse in Italy, the plane landed in Amman, Jordan. Through aid workers, the humanitarian organization hoped to provide those supplies to as many as 10,000 refugees who might be fleeing to Jordan from the military clash in Iraq.

The United Nations had predicted that the war would trigger a mass exodus from Iraq. Up to 600,000 people were pictured fleeing their homeland, and the potential for humanitarian crisis was deemed high. Over 40 humanitarian organizations rushed to the Iraqi border to help. Among these was World Vision, the world’s largest Christian humanitarian organization, whose U.S. headquarters is in Federal Way.

On March 20, the bombs began to fall. But though the war had begun, the refugee camps didn’t fill.

“We’re not meeting any refugees now,” said Steve Matthews, World Vision’s emergency relief communications manager. “My theory is that Iraqis knew the war was coming and were prepared with stored food and safe locations. So they’re waiting out the storm, at least for a month or two.”

Matthews has been in Amman for three months preparing for the outbreak of war. Much of the work has been coordination and cutting red tape.

“There are lots of humanitarian organization here –– 40 or 50 –– six governments bordering Iraq, three sets of military and 1,600 news people in Amman alone. So there are lots of meetings and coordination,” Matthews said. “We’re also doing stuff.”

Stuff like placing blankets, water containers and plastic sheets at key locations to serve as temporary shelters for refugees. Further shipments which include food, medicine, clothing and other essential goods have been sent to locations along the Iraqi border.

Matthews slept in one of the camps. “Even with a couple of blankets, it was very cold overnight,” he said.

He is part of a 14-person staff that he said is growing daily. The staff includes experts in programming, communications, human resources and finance. About half are men and half are women. They come from New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Germany, Austria, Britain, Canada and Italy.

“We’re all Christians in one form or another,” he said. “We’re driven by our Christian ethos. I personally feel very blessed. Somehow God has led me to this time and place, and it feels very good to feel that you’ve given back.”

World Vision plans a two-year Iraq program. The first phase is assisting refugees. The second phase is assisting post-war Iraq.

“A successful outcome would be at the end, looking back and seeing that our efforts have changed lives for the better, that we’ve learned some lessons, made some friends and found some enjoyment in a difficult situation,” Matthews said.

World Vision works in nearly 100 countries, and Matthew said that people need to remember other places where people are in need, in addition to the Middle East.

“(Iraq) is not the only part of the world that’s hurting,” he said. “There are many emergencies where people are hurting even more. But they are going relatively ignored. I’m thinking of Southern Africa’s food shortage and HIV crisis. War in Chechnya. Afghanistan, where it’s becoming unsafe for aid workers because it looks like the peace isn’t holding. Parts of Latin America. North Korea, which is a closed society with food shortages.” Matthews has worked on World Vision projects in many Islamic countries. But despite historically troubled relations between people of the two faiths, Matthews said practitioners of Islam have never given him any problem, “not ever at all.” And he said he wasn’t having any trouble in Jordan.

“I don’t see Muslim-Christian relations as a concern,” he said. “Rather, I see it as an opportunity, a chance to work in a volatile situation with two faith groups without a great history. It’s a chance to bridge the gap. My personal view of progress between Christians and Islams is if the relationships and friendships and mutual respect I’ve developed with Muslims would carry on.”

Matthews, who has three daughters, is returning to his home in Canada in a few weeks. The middle child, 10-year-old Olivia, began crying when she heard the war had erupted.

“She was very sad knowing that people would be killed, and she was afraid for me,” Matthews said. “So I sent her an e-mail saying, ‘Don’t worry about Daddy. My biggest problem is the food and the hotel.’ So I just try to make it funny for her.”

Matthews’ daughters live with their mother, Matthews’ ex-wife.

“I wouldn’t be doing this job if I was married,” Matthews said.

Staff writer Kenny Ching: 925-5565

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