Anyone watching the media coverage of March’s enormous earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan could not fail to be moved by the plight of their victims. Many of us will have reached for our wallets and donated to various charities giving vital aid to the displaced – but only a few of us will have been moved to do something practical ourselves to help the survivors.
Enter a group of scouts at a US Navy base in Japan, who decided they wanted to do something to help Japanese children who had lost their homes and families. They came up with Operation Backpacks, a plan to send bags full of useful, fun and comforting items to kids who had lost everything. Typical contents are a blanket, colouring books, pencils and crayons, snacks and sweets, soft toys, a tooth brush and toothpaste and hand sanitiser.
Gradually, Operation Backpacks sprouted wings and made its way onto social media websites, which is where Doha resident Wendy Dobrasz came across it. She decided she wanted to bring it to Qatar. ‘It was the whole idea of helping children that got me,’ she explains. ‘I have children of my own, and if something similar were to happen to us, I would want the same thing for my kids.’
So Dobrasz duly posted a message on the website of the social network Doha Mums, hoping to get between 80 and 100 backpacks, which she had arranged to have shipped through the US Army Base in Qatar. Three days in, she had already collected 42 backpacks, and she was feeling optimistic. But more was to come. ‘The phone calls suddenly started to come in,’ she says. ‘And then lots of schools got in touch, saying they wanted their students to take part. They loved the concept of teaching children to help other children that had been through a disaster.’
In total, 1,700 backpacks were collected from families, schools and colleges all over Qatar. Volunteers spent two days checking the bags and loading them into boxes. Dobrasz says she was overwhelmed by the response. ‘It felt great, but yet I was extremely nervous,’ she recalls, ‘because as it was growing, I knew that my original shipping plan wasn’t going to work anymore. I even had to turn schools away. I remember standing in front of the piles of backpacks, and I was so happy that I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t do it because I was so nervous about how on earth I was going to get them to Japan.’
Dobrasz also had another problem – storage. ‘About 90 per cent of the backpacks are in my house,’ she explains. ‘My dining room is consumed with boxes which are about seven feet high, and they are in my foyer, stairwell and landing, and also in the loft. And two of my friends have 30-40 boxes in their villas as well.’
Luckily, the boxes won’t have to stay there much longer. As we went to press, DHL offered to ship all the backpacks to Japan completely free of charge. So why has Operation Backpacks generated such a response? ‘I think what it is, is that this is something different,’ she says. ‘Mainstream charities will give families food and something to sleep on, the basic vital things they need to survive, but they haven’t the money to buy toys and special snacks that give them comfort. This is why to me this is so special. This gives them something to put a smile on their faces.’
Dobrasz is passionate about the message Operation Backpacks is sending, not just to those children in need, but also to the privileged children of Qatar who put them together. ‘I think it’s taught children here that when you are in a better situation, it’s always good to help those in need,’ she says. ‘And the children in Japan are going to know that kids from all over the world are feeling for them. Many kids have sent their own cherished toys away, and a lot of the backpacks have notes in. I wanted to cry reading some of them. One said, “I’m sorry about what happened to your country. I hope these help you feel a little bit happier.”’
Anyone interested in finding out more can contact Wendy Dobrasz at firstname.lastname@example.org