Northern Virginia officials are uniting again this year in an effort to help the growing numbers of those who have fled war-torn Syria and taken refuge in Turkey.
For the past two years, local officials and volunteers have organized drives that collected more than 43,000 blankets for delivery to refugees in Turkey. This year, as the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has swelled to more than 2 million, the drive is being expanded to include new and “gently used” winter coats, as well as blankets and cash donations.
Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R), Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R), Arlington County Board Chairman Mary H. Hynes (D) and Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) are the co-chairs for this year’s drive.
Donated blankets and coats will be accepted until Dec. 5 at more than 35 sites across Northern Virginia, including drop-off centers in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Stafford counties, and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church. The blankets and coats will be shipped to Turkey for distribution to refugees, many of whom are living on the streets, organizers said.
“The [Turkish] government is trying to do a good job and help as much as they can, but it’s really nothing compared with the magnitude and number of refugees there,” said Mustafa Akpinar, board member of the American Turkish Friendship Association, a Fairfax-based nonprofit organization that works to strengthen relations between the two countries.
Akpinar said that more than 2 million Syrian refugees are living in Turkey — the most of any country — and that the Turkish government is able to help only about 500,000.
“More than three-quarters [of the refugees] are on the streets trying to survive and find jobs,” he said. “It’s very hard.”
With winter approaching, the blankets and coats are “a huge need” for the refugees, said Prince William Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles).
“For the most part, people who are escaping Syria come with almost nothing,” Nohe said. “They bring very little with them and, frankly, live in cities where it doesn’t get very cold. . . . Turkey is a neighboring country, but it’s a little farther north and [has a] higher elevation, and the winters get cold.”
Nohe helped organize the first blanket drive two years ago after visiting a refugee camp in Turkey as part of a delegation of Virginia officials hosted by the American Turkish Friendship Association. York, Euille, former Purcellville mayor Robert W. Lazaro and former Virginia secretary of transportation Sean T. Connaughton were also members of that delegation.
“It was truly a transformative experience for each of us,” Nohe said, describing what it was like to see thousands of people, many of them children, living in extremely difficult conditions in the refugee camp.
“We left the camp and looked at each other and said, ‘What can we do?’ ” Lazaro said.
They decided on the blanket drive to help people who were forced to leave everything behind when they fled their homes. The first drive in 2013 collected more than 18,000 blankets. More than 25,000 were donated last year, Lazaro said.
The need is even greater now, Nohe said, because many people are being forced to bypass the refugee camps and live in unstructured camps or on the streets.
Bulova said the response to the drives in Northern Virginia has been heartwarming.
“People really like the hands-on giving,” she said, adding that some people even tuck notes into the blankets. She recalled a woman who had rushed to deliver her blankets to a drop-off center in Oakton just before the drive ended last year.
“She had hand-knit those blankets,” Bulova said. “She put loving and caring into those blankets, and they were beautiful. Just think of the Syrian family opening up the package that included a hand-knit blanket with a note of good wishes.”
For a list of drop-off locations for donated blankets and coats, or to make a cash donation, go to www.helpsyrianrefugees.us.
Barnes is a freelance writer.