Americans open their wallets for Iraqis

From adopting pets to sending soap, US public pitches in.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Frustrated by images of chaos and violence unfolding on the other side of the globe, Leigh Evans decided to do something concrete to help. The result: free yoga classes and fundraising help for a humanitarian-aid group.

Ms. Evans enlisted 40 San Francisco Bay area studios to offer classes and invite students to donate money to Oxfam America's Iraqi aid program last Sunday. So far, "Yogis for Peace" has raised $3,163.

"My students don't have money," says Ms. Evans. "The fact we raised $500 [at her Temescal Arts Center] is amazing."

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The yoga event was one of the more unusual efforts by Americans in recent weeks to direct money to Iraqi civilians. Some people, like Evans, are channeling their opposition to the war in a practical way. And even those who support military intervention have been moved to act by images of suffering or by direct pleas from nonprofits.

Critical role of the media

But while Americans are famous for their generosity in the face of natural or human disasters, some international aid groups say it's been more difficult to raise money for Iraq than for other high-profile war-torn areas, such as Afghanistan or Kosovo.

There's been no direct plea from President Bush like there was for Afghanistan, and some people may believe the US government will take care of the humanitarian needs. Until this week, the media - usually the single biggest trigger for giving - has focused more on US troops than on Iraqi suffering. It's also been difficult to raise awareness about famine, lack of water, and medical needs, when those problems are just beginning to be identified.

"The situation is very confusing for people," says Janet Harris, a development director for the International Rescue Committee. "They have a lot of ethical dilemmas because the US is the belligerent in this situation." But, she adds, "the press controls where people's consciousness is, and as the stories are beginning to turn [to the humanitarian crisis], we're seeing more and more spontaneous calls - 'What can I do? How can I help?' "

The politics of giving - and fundraising - can be tricky. An event like the 9/11 attacks can generate millions of dollars in donations, while a situation like the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo - considered one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today - may never draw much attention.

When a cause hits home

A huge disaster that affects millions may seem incomprehensible, while a well-told story of one family's suffering can have millions reaching for their pocketbooks. When a zoo in North Carolina brought attention to the plight of animals in the Kabul Zoo, for instance, money poured in. "Animals and a zoo - it's something people can relate to," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy.

This time around, the stories people relate to have been those that hit closer to home. "They're thinking about the troops," says Alina Labrada, a spokeswoman for CARE, based in Atlanta. "It's their sons and daughters, their neighbor's nephew, the kid who used to mow their lawn. They care about innocent people getting hurt, but they don't know those innocent people." Organizations like the Red Cross have been flooded with items for the troops. Eager citizens have adopted the pets of deployed soldiers, and have contributed thousands of dollars to a fund for Jessica Lynch, the rescued POW.

But already, as media coverage shifts from troops in danger to heartbreaking stories of individual Iraqis, more Americans are asking how they can help. A photo in the British press of a young Iraqi boy who had lost his family and both of his arms elicited a torrent of donations. When the American Friends Service Committee asked for healthcare kits - with necessities like toothpaste, bandages, soap, and nail clippers - they received thousands.

"The American public is extraordinarily generous once it knows what the needs are," says Mike Kiernan of Save the Children.

$600,000 in six days

Oxfam America, one of the few groups that doesn't accept any donations from the government, has been particularly successful with its fundraising, largely due to the influential antiwar group MoveOn.org. It sent an e-mail to its 2 million subscribers, encouraging them to contribute to Oxfam. Within six days, the organization had received more than $600,000 via its website.

The Internet is playing a major fundraising role for many of the big humanitarian-aid groups, all of which prominently display photos, banners, and pleas to help Iraqis. MercyCorps, based in Portland, Ore., chose the day Baghdad fell to launch its innovative Iraq page. The site tracks donations in real time, and lists the last 10 gifts and the towns they came from. Its goal is to raise $2 million in two months.

Mr. Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy offers advice to donors on his website. He encourages them to look for groups with a track record of helping out in the region, and to beware of ones that have a hidden agenda. But, ultimately, he hopes Americans will give. "We need a lot of goodwill in the world right now," he says, noting that only 1 percent of Americans' donations goes to international causes. "It would help if the world would see that we're very generous with our giving, and very compassionate and concerned."

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