Get the latest from TODAY
Editor's note: This story was first published on Feb. 7, 2017, and updated for World Refugee Day on June 20, 2017.
The letters arrive by the hundreds, to be sorted at the warehouse where a Southern California mom assembles backpacks of supplies for child refugees. Message of hope and love — some in scribbled crayon, some in graceful script — written for children without a home, half a world away.
“Have hope. You are loved. Don’t give up.”
“You are not alone.”
Volunteers tuck the letters into child-sized backpacks destined for refugee camps in Europe and the Middle East, packed and shipped by Operation Refugee Child. The backpacks contain necessities for families fleeing war and terror, like diapers, warm socks, blankets and protein bars. But each package also contains something extra — a small coloring book with crayons, or stickers or a baby rattle — just a little something to restore a tiny bit of childhood to kids who have been forced to grow up far too fast.
RELATED VIDEO: Meet the American moms helping child refugees
Operation Refugee Child is a labor of love for Gader Ibrahim, a 32-year-old mom of two and former bakery owner, born and raised in California, who by her own description was living a pretty standard Orange County mom life until recently. She worried about schools and her kids and the usual stuff. Then she saw the heartbreaking photo of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while his family made the perilous journey fleeing Syria. He was one of 8,793 refugees who died making the crossing in 2015 and 2016, according to the U.N.; so far this year, an estimated 1,990 are dead or missing.
Aylan looked just like her own little boy.
“I was a sobbing mess. I looked at my husband like, I need to do something. He was like, ‘Go to Greece.’” So Ibrahim joined a volunteer group of women bringing baby carriers to refugees. Greeting refugees just off the boat in Greece, Ibrahim saw a need — and also saw that an ordinary American mom like her could make a difference.
Inspired, she came home and started putting together backpacks. A year and a half later, Operation Refugee Child now has official 501(c)3 tax-exempt charity status. They’ve shipped more than 6,500 backpacks to refugees in Greece and Jordan — and each backpack contains a letter.
“Please take comfort in knowing that other families are thinking about yours and praying for your safety,” one typical note says.
“I hope you find a good place to live. I hope you like the cool things we sent in your package. My favorite is the Hello Kitty word search. I picked it out myself,” reads another letter, written in careful elementary school pencil letters and signed "Kailee."
Some people include family photos. Some draw pictures of their dogs. When she travels to refugee camps to distribute aid, Ibrahim sees the same letters hanging on the walls of tents. She’s seen first-hand how refugee children and their parents treasure the letters (even though some of them can’t read English).
“Letters mean a lot. They think, ‘Oh people actually care about us. We’re not forgotten,’” Ibrahim said. “It’s so sweet, I love it.”
The letters paint a picture that’s very different from the recent heated rhetoric and political debate around refugees and immigrants. People of all political persuasions send letters and donations and join Ibrahim for regular volunteer sorting and packing days at the warehouse.
“People still care,” Ibrahim said. “I’m shocked at how many people still care.”
In fact, Ibrahim recalled a recent argument on Facebook with an old high school friend about the campaign to boycott Starbucks after the company’s pledge to hire 10,000 refugees. Ibrahim supported Starbucks; her friend, a Trump voter, supported the boycott. They argued, but a few days later when Ibrahim posted an urgent request for donations to help refugees, her Trump-supporting friend was the first to donate money as well as volunteer her time.
“People really feel strongly about certain things, but they still have that humanity inside them,” Ibrahim said.
Writing letters, sending donations and packing bags and boxes for refugees is definitely a family affair at Operation Refugee Child. Ibrahim’s two sons are 4 and 1; the 4-year-old recently learned to write his name and loves to sign his drawings and letters for child refugees. While she knows she can't solve all the world's problems, Ibrahim says the best feeling is watching young children participate and volunteer. Echoing a sentiment Mahatma Gandhi made famous, she says: "I want them to be the change they want to see in the world."
Editor's note: This story was first published on Feb. 7, 2017, and updated on June 20, 2017.