Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Best Thing I have done in Iraq

After spending nine months of the last year in Iraq, I have to say that today made every single stress or horror or exhaustion worth undertaking a deployment. Today I had the opportunity to assist the 25th Infantry Division, Special Troops Battalion play host to about 30 children, ages 5-8, from the Orphanage House in Tikrit. The day was meant as a community service outreach between the U.S. Military on COB Speicher and the local Iraqis in the town of Tikrit. It was an ironic choice of day, as last night fireworks went off in Baghdad to celebrate the removal of US troops from Iraqi cities and towns. But as one Iraqi official today me today, "Today we are not thinking about that, today we are thinking about the children."

The day was off to a hectic start as my teammate and I, both night shift workers, decided to forgo the morning activities for some sleep and meet up with the festivities for lunch. We arrived at our building around 1:00pm while the children and other guests were having lunch in the courtyard. As we dropped off our belongings in the Red Cross office we were hijacked by the Air Forces Security Forces, our equivalent to MPs on base, and told they needed to do a contraband inspection of our rooms...NOW. Grumbling, Deb and I trudged back out to the car with the police as our escort back to our CHUs to do this contraband inspection.

Half an hour later we were back at the building, just in time to see the children and soldiers on their way to the gym for a carnival. We got re-situated and then drove to the gym ourselves. The Main Gym had been converted into a carnival with lots of different stations around the large room. There was bowling, a foot ball toss, a crafts station, guess the number of jelly beans in the bottle, a dunk tank, and a fishing station where kids threw a fishing line over a painted piece of wood and then reeled in their "fish" which was some sort of prize.

All the prizes had been donated and the generosity was extraordinary. People had donated radios, dolls, beads, yo-yos, there was tons of candy and treats. Our office had donated much of the arts and crafts supplies and although that was our official station to support, the entire gym was mass chaos and everyone migrated to whatever the children were doing. The hilarious thing was that the kids didn't need the stations to entertain themselves. They managed to find the soccer and volleyballs normally used at the gym and soon, games of each type had broken out around the room. They'd also gotten into the store of inflatable fitness balls and in many cases the balls were larger than the kids.

The children themselves were heartbreaking. To be honest, I spent the entire time not knowing if I should laugh or cry. I have not seen a child since before I deployed some 5 months ago and their energy and innocence and sincerity with which they rolled, and kicked and laughed made my heart want to burst. These were war orphans and many of them bore the scars of their pasts. A few children were missing limbs, several were mentally disabled, they were all unclean and in need of a bath and new clothes. They bore scratches and scrapes and looked up at you with at once the saddest and most excited eyes.

I let them lead me around the gym, sit in my lap, I tried desperately to understand what the wanted and when we both got frustrated I would search for a translator. The children were accompanied by probably 15-20 adults. Three individuals, two women and one man, actually worked at the orphanage and when I was introduced to the Special Needs teacher, a woman shrouded in black, eyes darkened with kohl, she shook my hand and then kissed me on both cheeks.

I was introduced to a Colonial in the Iraqi government, who, with the help of a translator told me that support from the orphanage came from all over, from the Iraqi government and the American military, from humanitarians and NGOs. He told me that the children really needed this day. He had wanted to introduce me to another official who he worked with, but he jokingly pointed to the arts and crafts table and said that he was busy "coloring" and sure enough this official was surrounded by a gaggle of little girls with crayons. I teasingly asked if he had any daughters and the official looked at me mischievously and said that he had two wives, 5 children by one and 6 children by the other. Alrighty then!

Afterwards, the same translator and I had a long conversation about the state of Iraq and the US military. She was neither a fan of American men or Iraqi men and she shared some very insightful and somewhat horrifying stories of her experiences with both men. It was an enlightening conversation, to say the least.

After an hour the kids were starting to slow down. The 25 ID band had been playing the whole event and a crowd have gathered by the band to dance. As things wound down, the crowd split into two groups as there were two pinatas tied to each basketball hoop. The girls went to one and the boys went to the other and what proceeded was hilarious as these tiny children attempted to break down the pinatas. At the end of the event, the kids, already loaded down with all their prizes and treats were each given a backpack and a smaller pouch filled with more gifts. Lots of pictures were taken and the adults were attempting to prevent tantrums as the tired kids were led back out to their bus.

It was absolutely the most fulfilling day I have spent in this country and every hardship was forgotten as I watched these children, with no home, and no loving parents run around the gym on a US military base and hold hands with the soldiers as though the war never was.

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