The mob of children in the Iraqi refugee camp had gotten so strong that I had to succumb to their force and let the bag of toys go. They piled on top of each other trying to grasp a toy car or plastic doll to call their own. This little gift would bring them a moment of happiness and distract them from an otherwise uncertain future. Our venture into Iraq took place two days ago. I needed some time before writing this article to gather my thoughts and really ponder about the events that took place, how I felt at the time it was happening, and the feelings I have now that it has passed and I have had time to let it all sink in.

Iraq Refugee Camp

This story begins when I met a man; let’s call him Paul Amsterdam. He had a mission on his mind, and when he told me what it was and asked me to join, there was no way I could turn it down. This meeting of men happened in Mardin, Eastern Turkey about a week ago. The plan was to stock up on toys, cross the border into ISIS controlled Iraq, somehow locate a refugee camp, and bring some hope to some displaced children. We spent the day together going from toy store to toy store in Mardin, collecting our gifts. By the end of the day we had bought over 500 toys. We unpackaged them, bagged them up, gathered a small amount of information on how to cross the border into Iraq, and tried to get some sleep. Our mission would begin the following morning.

Iraq Refugee Camp

We were both nervous about going to Iraq. The news lately hasn’t given the best impression of the country’s safety, but we had a mission on our minds and were determined to see it through. We made it through customs, into the border city of Zakho, and checked into a hotel in the center of town. All while carrying our own gear, as well as five huge bags of children’s toys. I wondered to myself what everyone must have thought when they saw two westerners on a local bus bound for Iraq with bags full of dolls. It wasn’t long after checking in that we decided to go for a walk and see what we could find. We hadn’t made it fifty meters from the hotel before we came across and large group of refugees. They had converted a local park into a camp that sprawled over a full city block. We had a quick look, saw it was full of children and immediately headed back to the hotel to gather up their gifts.

Iraq Refugee CampZahko Iraq Refugee CampZahko Iraq Refugee Camp

I was nervous before we entered. I didn’t know how we would be received. Paul was confident but I found myself staying a few feet behind him. We walked through the gate with our bags of toys and approached two men. We explained our purposes using non-verbal communication and tried to hand out toys to the children closest to us. The young refugees were reluctant at first, shy and timid of the two large foreigners. It did not take long for our intentions to be recognized and the men we had met began to get the children to form an orderly line up. We initiated the toy hand out one by one, calmly and politely. This lasted about two minutes before the children formed a mob and we had to let the bags go. They would divide the gifts amongst themselves using their own means. It was a feeding frenzy; like watching fish in a pond when you throw in some food. Eventually the bags were empty, calm was restored, and the children were smiling.

Zakho Iraq Refugee CampZakho Iraq Refugee CampZakho Iraq Refugee Camp

After peace had been restored we asked if we could have a look around. The refuges were friendly and inviting and gave us a tour of this park that they now called home. It was clean and orderly and I could tell that they were doing their best to make the most of a terrible situation. I thought to myself that if they lost hope, then they may have nothing else to lose and no reason to hang on. We shook hands with the men, and took pictures with the children. By this point they were all in small groups with their friends, enjoying the new toys. We walked past a couple of girls that had somehow got a hold of about 7 of the dolls; they were calmly sitting on the ground, stroking the doll’s hair and smiling. This is the point when what we had just done really kicked in. As we stood there in awe, we were approached by the oldest member of the group and asked to join him in makeshift hut for tea. We, of course, accepted.

Zakho Iraq Refugee Camp

Zakho Iraq Refugee CampZakho Iraq Refugee Camp

They lay out mats for us and we sat under a white tarp with the label of UNICEF written on it. The floor was grass and the walls were plastic. They heated a kettle over a fire and soon produced 4 glasses of tea. Two for us, one for the elder, and one for the man who I assume occupied the shelter we were in. At this point we got to talk with them and hear their story. ISIS had attacked their village. They had fled on foot into the mountains where they walked for 8 days with no food. Most had lost family members. Their village is now gone, and the place they once called home will never be called such again. A city park is their new place of residence; underneath plastic that leaks when it rains. They have no money, which in turn means they have no food. They are given next to no support, and have no idea what to do. The peaceful lives that these people once lived have been destroyed. We stayed until dark drinking tea, talking, and showing on Paul’s phone where Canada and the Netherlands were. I think they may have never seen a proper map before. We eventually left. We would continue our travels and they would stay, possibly forever, in that city park of Zakho, Iraq.

Zakho Iraq Refugee Camp

For myself, I found that the adrenaline of all this, and the quickness in which it happened, left my mind blank for the rest of that day. Even the next day just went by as normal, as if what had happened the day before was just a dream. It wasn’t until today, during a three-hour car ride to another Iraqi city, that I really had time to think about it. It occurred to me why, when I walked up, I was nervous; to me they were homeless and that led my mind to wander to negative thoughts. Now I realize that not to long ago, they lived in homes, had jobs, and went about their business like anyone else. These are regular people, like any of us reading this article, but these unfortunate souls have been reduced to sleeping in the dirt and are slowly starving. The uncertainty must be so intense, I can’t comprehend how they seemed so at peace. It showed a level of resilience that I don’t think I would see in my home country. If this happened in Canada, people would be lined up with their hands out and angry if not supported to the fullest. Unfortunately, in Iraq, this isn’t an option, and they rely on people like us to send over support for them. If asked two weeks ago where I would be in two weeks time, I never would have said Iraq, let alone handing out toys to refugee children. I have never been one for charity, and the thought would not have crossed my mind. I have to thank Paul Amsterdam for his idea, and the inspiration it gave me to accomplish this. I now have new perspective and this will not be the last time I donate my effort to help those in need.


Please help to raise awareness for what is happening here and share the article. At the end of all the pictures there is a short, light-hearted YouTube video that we made to go along with the story. Have a look, share it, and do what you can to help!


Zakho Iraq Refugee Camp Zakho Iraq Refugee CampZakho Iraq Refugee CampZakho Iraq Refugee Camp


Here is the YouTube video;


24 Responses

  1. Eddie

    Hi i’m a friend of Paul. You guys did a wonderful job.
    Say ” hi ” from me to Paul and take care


  2. Sue

    What a wonderful story Alex. I’m especially touched that they asked you both to join them for tea. Here they are without homes but still found a way to be hospitable and show their appreciation. A true display of the kindness and strength of the human spirit.
    Sue recently posted…Foodie Fun And So Much More in Traverse CityMy Profile

    • Alex

      Hitching hiking! thats pretty bad ass.. now I want to go back and try haha! Thanks for reading!

  3. Henriette

    What an incredible story! Especially because I read it too in the Dutch Paper and now I met you in real life!

  4. Reven


    Alex, you are the dude…all my wish lists and wanting are being done by you guys….it brings tears in my eyes, specially this post, video and story to bringing toys from Turkey to Iraqi refugee camp.. I want to join you!!!

  5. Jonny Blair

    Hi Alex, Firstly thanks for posting this. I’m actually shocked I haven’t seen your stories before, but they are great. Like yourself I wanted to break the backpacking mould by visiting places like Iraq, Nagorno Karabakh etc. I think it’s important to go to places like this and write about them in such a positive light as we all know that the media use scare tactics and try to make others think an entire nation is evil, when in any walk of life it’s always a minority, as is the case with Kurds and Iraqis that you and I both met on our separate trips to the Kurdistan part of Iraq. I truly hope one day the people will somehow have freedom and we can all go and visit Baghdad and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in peace and prosperity. Well things have changed in my homeland too – in the 1980s you couldn’t have stood as a tourist in front of a wall mural with guns painted on it – in 2015 it’s now one of the tourist attractions in Northern Ireland after a number of peace agreements in my home capital city of Belfast. Safe and happy travels and maybe meet you somewhere on your journey. Jonny
    Jonny Blair recently posted…Backpacking in Laos: Vientiane to Phon Hong to Vang Vieng by Truck and Mini-busMy Profile

    • Alex

      Hey Jonny, thanks for the kind words dude! I’v read a few of your posts over the years and used your posts as research before going to Iraq. For sure if we are ever in the same neck of the woods would be great to grab a pint. Stay in touch man safe travels!

  6. Richelle

    Wow this is such an incredible story! I would never have thought Iraq would be safe to visit, but I’ve really been enjoying all your posts on it (especially this one). I would love to do something like this one day, and I really commend you guys for coming up with the idea and following through. I’ll definitely be sharing on Facebook and Twitter 🙂
    Richelle recently posted…Is Hong Kong Really China?My Profile

  7. Pat

    Wow. This is truly an inspiring travel blog! This is a great reminder for me and all of us Americans to realize of how fortunate we are just to have roof on our heads, food in our stomach, and clothes on our backs. Once I go home for Christmas break, I’ll definitely show this blog to my little cousins to remind them how lucky they really are. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

  8. Monica

    This is so sweet; I can’t believe you did this! All I ever hear is horrible news coming out of that area. The little boy with the pacifier is darling. Good work, Alex!