Members of the Lake Oswego Rotary Club expected nothing in return when they collected funds for a program that supports the children of war-torn Iraq. After all, Rotarian Lynn Wintermute says, “this is what being a Rotarian is all about.”
But it’s hard not to look at the smiles on the faces of Iraqi children when they opened crates from a “Soccer Salam” airlift and not feel somehow rewarded. Inside those crates: sleeping bags, blankets — and more than 1,000 soccer balls.
“As always, the faces of the children are the most special,” Cindy Fogelman, U.S. liaison and executive director of the Iraqi Children Foundation, wrote to Rotary Club members in March. “I hope it warms your hearts to see the impact of your generous donation.”
That donation went far beyond sports equipment, of course. It was a gift of fun, a break from the horrors of war, and it impacted the lives not only of the children who received new soccer balls but also of the Rotarians who sent them.
“I’m thrilled to be able to do it,” says Wintermute, a past club president and a member of its International Service Committee. “I’ve made trips to help women and children in Thailand, Mexico and Guatemala, and it totally changed my life.”
Rotary’s mideast connection began two years ago, in part because current club president Alan Bazzaz is a native of Iraq. In 2013, members of the Lake Oswego club voted to make a special appeal for the children of Iraq, a country that has been caught up in war and strife for decades.
The club partnered with the Iraqi Children Foundation, a nonprofit based in Falls Church, Va., that is itself part of a coalation of nonprofits involved in the “Soccer Salam” project.
The Foundation was started by Jonathan Webb, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who says that during one mission over Baghdad, he was stunned by the sight of hundreds of children picking over garbage. “I had him come visit our club, and his talk was very compelling,”
Bazzaz says. “We raised $30,000, which funded operations for their center in Baghdad for a year.”
Late last year, the Rotarians again opened their hearts and checkbooks. “I sat at the front table for our Monday meeting and gave out information on how to donate,” Wintermute says.
“Some gave $5 or $10. One member gave $500. Seventy-five percent of our club members made donations. We really trust the Iraqi Children Foundation. We are sure our money is going straight to the children.” And indeed it is, according to the foundation’s website. The “Soccer Salam” program aided:
-- 486 families at two of Baghdad’s largest camps for internally displaced persons;
-- 253 families taking shelter in Baghdad’s al-Rashid district;
-- 100 families who have taken up residence in schools, mosques and unfinished buildings in New Baghdad;
-- 75 families taking shelter in Baghdad’s Karadah District, including Christian families being cared for by St. Joseph Church;
-- 33 families living in a school warehouse building in Sadr City; and
-- 130 especially vulnerable families living in an open field behind al-Salam University College on the south side of Baghdad — a community previously untouched by aid.
“You can see the impact,” Fogelman says. “It brings joy and practical help, but even beyond that, there is an indirect benefit to many Iraqi adults who work with these kids and are touched by the kindness of Rotary.”
In addition to Wintermute, several other Lake Oswego Rotarians have taken leading roles in the club’s Iraq project, including Lora Helmer and videographer Lynn Hennagin. It is Bazzaz, though, who has witnessed the trauma of Iraq firsthand.
Bazzaz returned to his native country in 2010 to visit relatives he hadn’t seen in 33 years. One of those relatives was Bazzaz’s cousin, an ambitious young man who had just earned his degree in civil engineering.
“He and I really connected,” Bazzaz says. “He wanted to leave Iraq and come to the U.S. But a couple of months after I left, he was going to work one day and a bomb went off in a nearby trash can and killed him. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was devastating for me. It was heartbreaking.”
The suffering in Iraq has greatly increased in recent years, Fogelman says, as thousands of children and their families have been driven from their homes by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS). “So many parents have been killed and children are often just left on the street,” Wintermute says. “If they are left on the street, they’re in danger of being picked up by the terrorists.”
Wintermute says she’s asking that people forget about politics and remember the plight of innocent children — and the value of a smile that can come from something as simple as the gift of a soccer ball.
“We’ve got to look beyond politics,” she says. “Children are being caught in these deadly situations. I take this effort seriously. If I can help these children in a small way, I’m there.”
For more information about the Iraqi Children Foundation, go to sicfiraq.org.
by Cliff Newell