Fundraiser brings the realities of refugee life to Utah's front door

"Out of sight, out of mind" was not a possible consideration Thursday evening at a fundraiser for an issue Utahns may otherwise feel disconnected from. 

Though Baghdad's refugee camps may be thousands of miles away from the Beehive State, one nonprofit found a way to bridge that gap. 

"It's good to see the physical element, the tents," said fundraiser attendee Jennie Pinnock. "It's better than just a picture." 

"It puts a real face on it," Marcus Pinnock said. Behind Sandy's Hale Center Theatre, the Pinnocks were able to step through a mock refugee tent city designed to help them and other attendees understand the living conditions in Middle Eastern camps. 

It was part of a fundraising gala hosted by AMAR, a London-based nonprofit that helps refugees in Iraq gain more sustainable health care and education. Attendees, stepping through the tents, spoke with former refugees seated inside. 

"You remember the first Gulf War, before, in 1991, we do the same thing," Ahmed Khudhur said of staying in refugee camps. He said the tent he stood in Thursday is similar to what he's experienced twice before — in 1991 and in 2003. 

Khudhur stands at the entrance of one of these tents, addressing attendees and answering their questions. His wife and children sit on the floor next to him. "There was not a lot of food," he said. "We don't have a lot of choice." 

During those periods in the camps, he and his family would drink from a nearby river and eat only two foods every day: turnips and dates. "Only dates — morning, afternoon," Khudhur said. Today, years after leaving Iraq, Khudhur and his family live in Salt Lake City. 

Khudhur serves as a referee for soccer games across the U.S. Authenticity was key Thursday, according to gala committee chairwoman Kathy Free. She said the organization purchased three tents from the same company that creates the tents for the refugee camps in Iraq. 

"They literally said 'We could print the (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) logo on the side. We're the ones that do it,'" Free said. "We said, 'Maybe we don't go that far.'" Gary Free, president of Utah's AMAR chapter, said the group was likely to raise over $100,000 over the course of the night — 100 percent of which is going directly towards its efforts in Iraq. 

"There's over 2.5 million refugees there," Free said. "At one time, there was 3 million refugees in Iraq. That is about one out of 11 of their population." For those refugees, Free said the funds raised Thursday will go towards education and medical attention that goes beyond emergency care. 

"They don't have the luxuries of having a place to take their kids to — they need stitches, or they have infections or disease," Free said. The Iraqi government is not able to provide schooling for many, he said, but AMAR fills that gap. 

Despite being a global organization, AMAR maintains a strong connection to Utah — a place where nonprofit officials have found greater success in their fundraising, according to Kathy Free. Since 2014, she said the nonprofit has partnered with LDS Charities. 

"They think it's because of that culture of giving — that LDS culture of giving," Kathy Free said. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently met with Baroness Emma Nicholson, the founder of AMAR. 

According to LDS Church News, religious leaders and scholars have joined with AMAR and LDS Charities to engage in conferences about humanitarian work. AMAR was founded 25 years ago in response to the persecution of the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, according to the organization's website

The acronym originally stood for Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees. As it expanded to help other Iraqis, it kept its name, which happens to mean "the builder" in some Arabic dialects, consistent with AMAR's goal to rebuild lives. 

"I think for the millions of people they're able to impact with their medical help, it's a pretty powerful foundation," Marcus Pinnock said. "It was a huge blind spot in our minds, as far as what happens and what doesn't happen, and be made aware and see what the need is." 

By Alec Williams



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