Greenwich women help Syrian refugees

Greenwich women help Syrian refugeesimage

04 Nov 2015

It started with the Syrian toddler. Wearing blue shorts, a red T-shirt and Velcro shoes, he was found dead on a Turkish beach. And the photos of his drowned little body went viral.

“That was the trigger… Of course we knew what was going on before that time, but he was just a symbol of the children’s part of this whole crisis going on,” said Kirsten MacDonald, a Greenwich resident who moved here from Denmark eight years ago.

She, along with friends Margaret Anker, Anne Ferguson and Sue Parkin, decided enough was enough. She said they couldn’t keep reading the news and seeing the photos, they had to do something.

“The children are definitely the victims, they have no choice. That was the real cause for our action,” said MacDonald. They decided to gather donations to send to Syrian refugees, especially refugee children, in Europe.

“We talked about how great it would be to tap into the community of Greenwich that has so much to offer,” she said.

First they found a contact, which took a bit of leg work. It was a friend’s former babysitter’s high school best friend: Katerina Ilievska. She works on the ground as a volunteer and correspondent for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning nonprofit SOS Children’s Villages.

Ilievska identified for MacDonald’s group what the refugees needed most: clothing, shoes and Mylar blankets.

MacDonald reached out to numerous local schools to ask if they would help her accumulate the donations to send to Syria

“Whitby responded within the hour and said ‘Yes, we want to support this drive.’ They sent out an e-mail to all school families. Immediately we were receiving donations,” she said.

What started as a small group effort, kind of went viral itself. “I wouldn’t exactly say it’s gone viral, because it wasn’t all through the internet. But it’s gone viral through word of mouth,” said MacDonald.

Donations poured in. She said more schools followed Whitby School’s lead, including Convent of the Sacred Heart and Eastern Middle School, and even schools in Norwich, Conn., and Tarrytown, N.Y.

MacDonald and her group had set a goal of raising 10,000 Mylar blankets, a low-weight blanket made of reflective, plastic sheeting designed to reduce bodily heat loss. They now have more than 16,000.

“People are coming up to me and saying thank you for the opportunity, which is also a really touching way of saying ‘wow, this has gone way further than we had expected,’” said MacDonald

They had bought a 40-foot-long container, which had 7,700 cubic feet worth of space to fill. A family from the Whitby School has offered to pay the entire cost of shipping the container from Greenwich, Conn., to Skopje, Macedonia.

“We will definitely be able to fill the container, which was our concern at the beginning,” she said.

MacDonald said they have enough donations, but now what they need is people who can help fit the items into the shipping container.

“You should see my garage in Riverside,” she said, explaining it is filled to the brim with plastic bags of donations and the container itself.

Starting on Nov. 9, MacDonald hopes to have a team of people who can help sort and pack all of the donations into the container. Her group has created a link online where people can sign up to volunteer their time.

She said they are also in need of packing materials, particularly packing tape and an industrial-sized scale.

MacDonald and her group have arranged to ship the container on Nov. 16. She said she’ll need some strong individuals to help lift the container from her garage into the postal truck.

MacDonald said she is proud of her Greenwich community.

“The way we saw our community come together and help us, it made me think, people are amazing,” she said.

The group will be giving a presentation to students about their donation efforts at the Whitby School in the coming weeks.