Like most bloody and divisive conflicts, the Syrian conflict has given rise to scores of new warring factions and military groups, most notably the Islamic State. Amid the chaos, however, a group of university students has quietly created a novel humanitarian organization to comfort Syria’s refugees, in part by staging carnivals for thousands of children scarred by tragedy.
The Mulham Volunteer Team has become a household name in Jordan and Syria for its almost quixotic battle to bring back rare smiles to young refugees. The group, which now counts about 30 volunteers from Syria and other countries, was formed by college students in Jordan, intent on helping the quickly growing number of refugees streaming across the border.
They named themselves after one of their friends, a 24-year-old activist named Mulham Turayfi, from the coastal city of Jableh, in Latakia governorate, who was killed in clashes with the government in 2012. The group now works mostly in Jordan, but has also started to operate in Turkey.
The Mulham volunteers have become best known for their “carnivals of hope” for refugee children in Amman, Zaatari refugee camp, and inside Syria. Last year almost 12,000 children attended the group’s carnivals, which feature theater performances, video games, live cartoon characters and free candy, the group says.
The group has also provided refugees with blankets and winter clothing and run special markets in several Jordanian cities. They also run more traditional campaigns, supplying food and medicine to various opposition-held areas within Syria.
Syria Deeply spoke with one of the group’s founders, Mohammad Shinbo, about the group’s work.
Syria Deeply: Tell us more about the children’s carnivals.
Shinbo: About 300 children attend each one. We play with them to get them out of the state of war they see all the time. We mostly work with children in the camps, such as the Zaatari camp, as well as the camps in Turkey and the camps on the Syrian border. These children suffer from different psychological conditions that were triggered or caused by the war. At the end of the carnival we distribute gifts.
The whole point of these carnivals is to let the children release all their negative energy they bottle up and to get them out of the depressing reality they live every day.
Syria Deeply: What are some of the most difficult cases you’ve encountered?
Shinbo: A girl named Ghazel had a tumor in her head and needed an operation within 48 hours. The operation cost about $10,000. We tried our best to raise the funds and provide her with the needed money. By way of fundraising, our team has a large number of members on social media sites, and they repeatedly spread the word about such cases until the required money is gathered.
She is still receiving her treatment, she hasn’t completely healed, but we are keen on helping her and following her treatment.
Syria Deeply: Who are your donors?
All contributions are from individuals. No Arab or international organizations have been part of it. We were able to collect [a roster of donors] based on word of mouth. The donors are not just Syrian, they’re from all over the word and of different nationalities, in the Gulf States, Europe and the U.S.
The money is gathered in many ways, through bank accounts, Western Union transfers, or one of our team members in the same country as the donor physically receiving the money.
Sometimes the donors are given certified medical reports about the case [of the recipient] or they’re contacted directly with the hospital. As for the families that have sponsors, their donors are allowed to communicate with them if they choose to do so.
Syria Deeply: What’s the next project on your horizon?
Shinbo: We started helping people with serious medical conditions … complicated childbirths or injuries in the war. We have started to provide medication and treatment, launching us into a more important phase of our work.
The launching point was the winter 2013 campaign to collect blankets and winter clothes for vulnerable families and those in the camps. We simply took to the street and started calling out, “There are people who are cold. We want to keep them warm. We are collecting blankets.” This took place in tandem with campaigns on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, to collect winter clothes, blankets and shoes.
The campaign was a success … it helped us expand the team. After that, we worked on education campaigns to provide school bags and stationary in bright colors to encourage kids to go to school. In November of last year we concluded our shoe distribution campaign for children in the Zaatari camp. The campaign was called “your help keeps us warm.” A donor could give $7 to cover the price of a pair of shoes. We were able to distribute 420 pairs of shoes for the upcoming winter season.
Then we had campaigns for Eid where we collected holiday clothes and gifts for children. The children would enter a hall where all the clothes were neatly arranged and they would pick whatever they liked. This campaign took place in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria.
You can find the Mulham Volunteers on Facebook.