Governments, Citizens Aid Kurds

Despite response, aid organizations warn generosity is proportional to media coverage. INTERNATIONAL RELIEF

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PHONES are ringing and checks are being signed as Americans dig into their pockets to help the Kurdish refugees fleeing Iraq. A plethora of nonprofit organizations have formed a network to send money, volunteers, and supplies - blankets, food, and sanitation equipment - to the millions of Kurdish refugees and other peoples displaced in the wake of the Gulf war.

At the nexus of the network is InterAction, an association of humanitarian aid groups based in Washington, D.C. InterAction is coordinating the effort to ensure that supplies and donations are appropriately and evenly distributed.

Most of the relief organizations say it is still too early to tell if long-term public response will be stronger for this crisis than for such fund-raising emergencies as the Armenian and San Francisco earthquakes and for famine relief in Africa.

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Nor are there total dollar figures yet for what supplies are needed and what has been raised.

But so far, say most organizations polled, the initial response from the American public has been swift and generous.

"The phones have not stopped ringing - from individual citizens as well as from foundations, groups, people wanting to be helpful," says Harold Fleming, senior program funding officer at UNICEF in New York.

The United Nations children's agency has gathered some $6 million for refugee aid from governments around the world and from citizens in the United States.

The biggest contributor so far has been the Netherlands, pledging $900,000. Other calls have come from doctors wanting to fly to the region to help and from construction workers wanting to donate their lunch money.

"We've been surprised by the high numbers on the checks that are coming in. We're really getting an outpouring of generosity from the American public," says Wendy Christian at Save the Children in Westport, Conn., which has raised $73,000 in a few days.

Usually, donations for disaster relief are under $20, Ms. Christian says. But checks for the Kurds are ringing in at $100 to $6,000 each.

Most money is being spent on shelter items, such as blankets and tents, says Lisa Mullens, coordinator at InterAction. "There's very little information on what's needed out there, and the needs are changing rapidly."

President Bush's recent announcement that the US will provide military assistance will alter what's needed from private donors, Ms. Mullens adds.

What's certain is that money is more needed than goods.

"The American public should not attempt to collect goods to help the refugees. Most items needed can be obtained in the region. It's not cost-effective to send items from this country.... It's cheaper to buy food in Ankara [Turkey] and truck it, and it helps the Turkish economy, which will be stressed by this influx of refugees," says Mullens.

Good drinking water is critical right now, according to John Hammock, executive director of Oxfam America in Boston. "Usually people die not from starvation, but from public health problems [caused by] bad drinking water."

Other Iraqis in need of assistance include Shiite Muslims in the south; Asyrian Christians; Chaldeans; Iraqi Jews; and Arab Sunni Muslims.

"It's not just a Kurdish problem. It runs the full gamut of Iraqi society and ethnic opposition," notes Court Robinson of the US Committee on Refugees in Washington.

Media coverage is credited for the rapid response of generosity, say the relief organizations. Visuals work best: photos and newsreels of the hungry and homeless tug at heart strings and purse strings.

"Pictures, more than words, tell this story," says Save the Children's Christian.

But in contrast to the response to the situation in northern Iraq, Americans are slow to respond to the famine sweeping the Horn of Africa, say the fund-raisers.

"It's unfair to make comparisons, but I wish the media and American public would be as forthcoming on some of the other tragedies, like in Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique," says UNICEF's Mr. Flemming.

Some 27 million people are facing starvation in Africa, according to InterAction. But media attention can have a downside: When it stops, people tend to forget.

Says Oxfam's Mr. Hammock: "One of my main concerns is there will be a lot of media attention, and we will help put people in camps, help stabilize the situation. Then when the media attention ends, these people will be left in refuge camps to rot."

That's what happened in Cambodia in 1979-80, Hammock says, where refugees still live on the border of Vietnam.

Getting the Kurds back on their Iraqi homeland is a priority, he says. "Unfortunately, it's a highly political question. And the problem here is total distrust" of the Iraqi regime.

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