A chilly breeze stirred outside Charlotte Douglas International Airport Friday morning as Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham watched pallets loaded with gifts being loaded onto a Boeing 747-400 cargo jet.
The huge plane would soon leave for Iraq on a mission of mercy.
The cold weather reminded Graham of his visit to Syrian refugee camps in northern Iraq shortly before Christmas. More than 200,000 refugees packed into the camps and conditions were terrible, especially among the children.
Graham saw them running through mud with no shoes and wearing make-shift jackets fashioned from multiple T-shirts. He described them as “children who have lost so much.”
“Fifty percent of the refugees were children and they had no idea where their parents are,” Graham said, as the cargo plane prepared to airlift 65,000 shoe boxes for kids in the camps. “They have absolutely nothing.”
Since August, Samaritan’s Purse has been helping Syrian refugees after Iraq offered asylum to those caught up in the civil war. The nonprofit has furnished such things as food, shoes, diapers and portable heaters.
Now, Samaritan’s Purse project Operation Christmas Child is focusing on the children, providing shoebox gifts filled with toys, school supplies, and hygiene items.
Graham said the cargo plane would land in Erbil Saturday morning local time and by that afternoon the shoeboxes “would start to be delivered into the hands of the children.”
Delivery is through local pastors.
“My heart is full of thanks to God, our donors and volunteers who made it all possible,” said Graham
On Friday, 350 to 400 volunteers and donors with the Boone-based Operation Christmas Child came to watch the loading of the plane. Since 1993, the project has delivered more than 110 million shoebox gifts to children suffering the effects of war, disease, poverty famine and natural disaster. Last year, Operation Christmas Child collected more than. 9.9 million boxes. Officials said 2 million were prepared for shipment at the Charlotte Processing Center.
Speaking briefly at Friday’s event, Graham mentioned that his father “was not in real good heath.”
“He has not been able to regain his strength,” Graham said. “His vitals are good but he’s extremely weak.”
As 95 tons of gifts were loaded onto the plane, Operation Christmas Child officials talked about the project’s work in 130 countries around the world.
Randy Riddle, Operation Christmas Child director of operations for the U.S., recalled going to the Philippines earlier this year with a shipment to children who her victims of the typhoon. He talked to a family with four children who saw the roof of their cinder block house ripped off by the storm and found themselves clinging to the top of a wall, expecting to die.
The children had little to begin with and after the typhoon they had even less.
Like all shoeboxes provided by Operation Christmas Child, the gifts inside were simple. But they made a great impact.
In the Philippines, as he had elsewhere, Riddle saw “the faces of children receiving the first gift of their lifetimes. They’d never owned anything new.”
Chris Ramsey, Carolinas Regional Director with Operation Christmas Child, witnessed the same thing last summer in Panama.
“I saw a boy weeping over the getting a tooth brush,” he said. “I will never forget that. This child had been sharing a tooth brush with other family members.”
People at the event agreed it was a special day.
Nicole Smith, 40, of Marion joined Operation Christmas Child six years ago as a volunteer and is now in her first year as regional area coordinator.
A math instructor at McDowell Technical Community College, she looked for a way to “minister to the local community and reach out and minister to people all over the world.”
Friday was the first time she’d seen a cargo plane loaded with Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.
“I love seeing the excitement and enthusiasm,” said Smith. “I’m filled with contagious joy. I’ll be praying for the plane and I’m glad to be a part of the big picture.”