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ANSWERING THE CALL: Mission men aid refugees in Kurdistan

20121123 Kurdistan DY Blackstar Group-2 FEATURESteve Chung of Mission looked up to see a truckload of cold, wet families entering the refugee camp. He had been showing refugees from the Syrian civil war how to use the water filters he brought for them. Many in the Domiz Refugee Camp, just outside the city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, suffer from diarrhea. Chung’s filters are vital to the prevention of the condition.

“I served as an Army officer in Iraqi Kurdistan back in 1991 and grew to love the Kurdish people,” said a tireless Chung. “Most Americans don’t know that after Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein’s regime tried to exterminate them. He killed tens of thousands of Kurds, including the 8,000 people he murdered with mustard gas in the city of Halabja. I greatly admire the Kurds, and when the civil war erupted in Syria, I just had to try to help the people who made it to the camp.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories written by Progress Times reporter/photographer Doug Young from Kurdistan, Iraq. While the first segment dealt with the plight of the Kurdish refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, this article tells of the role the Blackstar Group, from Mission, Texas, is taking to aid Kurds at the Domiz Refugee Camp near Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdish People

The Kurds are a distinct group here. They are not Arab and have their own language. They’re the largest ethnic group in the world without their own homeland, as they’re spread across northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and Syria.

Operation Desert Storm in 1991 defeated the Arab nation of Iraq, but Saddam Hussein tried ethnic cleansing against the Kurds. The United States and NATO set up Operation Provide Comfort, which included a no-fly zone. The Kurds were granted their area of northern Iraq as an autonomous region, part of Iraq, yet running most of their own affairs.

Today, while most of Iraq still experiences violence, the Kurdish area is calm with several international companies investing in the area. When the Syrian civil unrest became violent earlier this year, the Kurdish Regional Government asked the United Nations to set up a refugee camp for Kurds with Iraqi Kurdistan acting as the host government.

From Mission To Kurdistan

20121123 Kurdistan DY Blackstar Group-6Mission’s Steve Chung (standing, left) instructs a Kurdish volunteer who is distributing water filters to refugees living in unsanitary condition the Domiz Refugee camp outside Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Progress Times photo by Doug YoungChung, along with Gary Kintigh and Michael Perlongo, are the co-founders of Blackstar Group USA, a company specializing in training law enforcement agencies and local governments in disaster relief as well as safety and emergency medical support.

Both Kintigh and Chung have extensive experience working overseas in places like Bosnia, east Africa and Iran. They use their combined years of police and military skills with technical expertise to operate a company.

Kintigh and Chung are also active members of the Mission community. Both are leaders in Boy Scouts and took 10 members of their troop to Louisiana last summer after Hurricane Isaac hit the area.

“It was an eye-opener for many of the boys. They had never seen people in desperate need of food and water,” said Chung. “For that matter, they’d never seen people lose their homes before. Seeing people just like them suddenly homeless was difficult, but the Scouts pitched in and worked hard. I was very proud of my boys.”

Chung and Kintigh are also members of the Texas State Guard and will be bringing volunteers from the guard to Kurdistan in the coming months.

Going to Kurdistan for relief operations is a big expense. Buying airplane tickets and paying for hotel rooms, the group discovered they needed 4,000 water filters after an assessment trip in late October. They also had to consider the costs for shipment, obtaining local transportation, hiring translators and getting local cell phone service.

After wheedling down the price of the water filters, Sawyers Filters of Florida also agreed to air ship them to Iraq and help in the operation.

Kintigh and Chung raided their checking accounts to get the operation underway and opted to look for additional funding once they were in the refugee camp.

“Some disaster relief organizations are businesses that make a profit. Most groups doing relief work do it for their love of humanity, but are nonetheless funded,” explained Chung. “We are taking the chance that we can recover what we’ve spent out of our own pockets, but there are no guarantees. We might get stuck with the entire bill.”

20121123 Kurdistan DY Blackstar Group-7A young Kurdish refugee from the civil war in Syria laughs outside his family’s tent donated by Rotary International in the Domiz Refugee camp outside Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Progress Times photo by Doug YoungAs a member of the Mission Rotary Club, Chung believes in group’s motto of “Peace Through Service.” He displays banners for Rotary International, who monitors his work here, and Mission Rotary Club while supervising the assembly of the filters. During a meeting with one Kurdish official, he even suggested a Rotary Club be organized in Dohuk.

Peace Through Service

Not one to lead from behind a desk, Chung often works through an interpreter to show refugee leaders how to assemble, use and clean the water filters. As more people are trained, some are selected to train others. Shortly after arriving, Chung had a small army of camp volunteers taking responsibility for their newfound community by improving water safety.

“While diarrhea is a constant worry, especially for children and the elderly, our biggest worry is cholera,” he said. “We must have clean safe water in the camp or we will have an epidemic too big to handle.”

The work is multi-faceted. After working around the tents and the muddy streets, Chung has to turn over the teaching to Mohammed, a young English speaking Kurd who is Blackstar Group’s team leader in Iraq, before meeting with government officials.

Though predominately Muslim, the Kurds are tolerant of other faiths. Chung is a member of St. Peter and St. Paul Episcopal Church in Mission who has an abiding faith. During a recent conversation with the Muslim cleric of the makeshift mosque in the camp, the two agreed there is only one God with many names. The Kurds include Christians and Jews among their numbers. A family’s theology matters little to Chung, who said he only sees that God’s children need help.

Blackstar Group is like the other aid agencies in the camp, struggling to cope with the rapid growth of the camp’s population. The United Nations has projected the camp will soon house 42,000 people within the next month with more coming should Turkey be successful in turning away refugees.

There is also a plan to morph the Domiz Refugee Camp into a settlement camp. If people are forced to stay away from their homes for an extended period of time, more semi-permanent housing must be found.

Chung and Kintingh have experience in firefighting and are looking to bring small ATV-type pumpers to the camp that can maneuver the narrow dirt streets. Fire crews would need to be trained, water bladders installed and fire extinguishers bought and positioned in key places.

Nobody really knows how long the current situation will continue. The Assad government may stay in power a long time, or may fall soon. Should it crumble, a civil war may follow while competing groups seek power.

Whatever happens, the camp must be able to provide safe and adequate housing, food, sanitation and security for a small city.

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CoverageAreaThe Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.

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