Far away from home, a California mom tried to comprehend the horror of another mother forced to drug her own daughter into semi-consciousness.
It was the only way to keep the little girl calm as they sailed across dangerous waters in an overcrowded, rickety boat — just one out of thousands of families fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, caught up in the refugee crisis.
“I’m not someone who gets emotional or cries… but when this woman told me that she had to drug her child to come across, I kind of just lost it,” Somer Sood told TODAY Parents.
Last month, Sood left her home in Irvine, California, where she lives with her husband and two small children, and heeded an overwhelming urge to go to Greece, the first stop for many of the refugees trying to reach Europe. She met the woman in the cold, muddy Kara Tepe migrant camp on the island of Lesvos.
“I just felt I needed to be there, I needed to help,” she said. “Orange County is a bubble and you can really get caught up in your hood ornament and soccer practices and not have a life beyond that.”
Sood volunteers for Operation Refugee Child, an aid group started by another California mom desperate to bring a little comfort to the youngest victims half a world away.
The mission is simple: Give out light backpacks filled with necessities that kids and their parents stuck in refugee camps would love, like a blanket, rain poncho, protein bar, jump rope, plush toy and more.
“There were so many children and so many of them are bored and crying and miserable. I figured, maybe I can create a backpack and fill it with stuff that they could use,” said Gader Ibrahim, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom in Orange County who founded Operation Refugee Child after volunteering in Athens last November.
“Anything I could imagine my 3-year-old would be entertained by… anything to get them through their journey.”
There are boy and girl versions of the backpack, plus a mom-baby edition. Many of the mothers were asking for sunscreen, sanitary pads, baby formula and deodorant, Sood said.
She and Ibrahim were particularly spurred to action after seeing images of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler whose body washed up on a beach last September after his family’s attempt to make the risky crossing from Turkey to Greece.
The hundreds of thousands who do make it — most from Syria and Afghanistan — have inundated Greece and are often stuck in camps as they try to seek asylum elsewhere in Europe.
Those are the people Ibrahim, an American whose family comes from Jordan, wanted to help.
She raised more than $200,000 for her project through an Indiegogo campaign and then watched with awe as people kept donating items for the backpacks, filling her garage with so many boxes that she couldn’t walk into her house.
She and her friends assembled 1,500 backpacks in California. Then last month, a handful of core Operation Refugee Child volunteers flew out with 600 of them to Greece, distributing the backpacks to children and their parents in camps on Lesvos.
“They loved them… you could see them pulling out the crayons and getting really excited,” said Valentina Caceres, a 24-year-old volunteer who lives in Yorba Linda, California. One item — meant to be a signal for help, but transformed by the children into something fun — was a particular hit, she noted.
“The kids loved the (emergency) whistles. So we had hundreds of kids running around the camp with whistles, going crazy.”
Caceres, who spent several years in the U.S. Navy and has a 15-month-old son, has been closely following the war in Syria, but felt frustrated that many of her friends knew little about it.
Eager to make a difference, she went to Greece with Operation Refugee Child at her husband’s urging: “He’s great staying with the kid and he’s like, ‘You have to go.’”
One of Caceres' most vivid memories of the camps is coming across a weeping little boy walking with his sister. She found out he was upset because the girl received a doll, but there weren't any toys left for him. So Caceres and her friends gave him a toy robot made out of wood.
"This kid's face just lit up. He was just so happy," she recalled.
Sood, who was born in the U.S. to Palestinian parents, speaks Arabic, which many of the refugees found comforting. She, in turn, was comforted to be able to tell them people care, she said.
She described the situation in the Lesvos camps as dire, with everyone cold and wet, and aid not keeping up with the population. Besides the backpacks, Sood distributed down jackets, which a company donated to Operation Refugee Child. She’s already planning another trip in April.
“It’s a drop in the ocean… but I don’t want to stop, I want to keep going,” Sood said, noting she finds it surreal to go home to California.
“If I hear one more person complain about their latte order being wrong, I’m probably going to lose my mind.”
Caceres understands completely.
“Coming back from those trips is always really hard on me because you just want to stay indefinitely and you feel helpless that this is still going on,” she said.
“It made me realize how good I have it and how my problems are insignificant.”
What's inside the Operation Refugee Child backpacks?
Here are a few of the items Operation Refugee Child distributed to refugee families in Greece. Click on the orange pulsing dot to learn more.