- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

BAGHDAD — Contributions of clothes and toys from Americans to poor Iraqi children have swamped flights of military mail into Baghdad, forcing officials to scramble for ways to handle an influx of generosity that no one had anticipated.

Cardboard boxes filled with hand-me-downs normally destined for neighborhood garage sales began piling up at the Baghdad Convention Center late last year in response to an e-mail appeal from American soldiers to families and friends back home.

The request found its way onto the Internet, and soon people from across the country were mailing clothes, toys, notebooks, backpacks and shoes at super-cheap postal rates to a military address in Baghdad.

The system, devised for families to send care packages to loved ones in the military, was suddenly flooded with gifts for Iraqi children. That’s when two young Americans, who were working as volunteers at the Convention Center, stepped in and began delivering the boxes to the poorest neighborhoods in Baghdad.

“When we saw these kids with bloody feet and no shoes running through raw sewage, it really hit us. We felt like we had to stay and do something,” said Jeff Neumann, 28, who makes several runs each week with his longtime surfing buddy, Ray Le Moine, 25, to the sprawling slum on the edge of Baghdad that is known as Sadr City.

The duo, dressed in T-shirts and Boston Red Sox baseball caps, cut unusual figures as they drive borrowed trucks between the flak-jacketed soldiers who guard the convention center and the mosques, orphanages, schools and neighborhood charities of Sadr City.

“We really need shoes. I felt so bad that we didn’t have enough to go around,” said Mr. Neumann after a visit to one orphanage.

The facility, which has 36 children, is operated by Sayed Abdul Razza al Battat, a Shi’ite cleric with a trim beard and a smile that radiates the warmth of a sunny day at Disney World.

“They all need shoes. They are playing soccer all the time and whenever they get a pair of shoes, the shoes wear out and it’s a mess,” Mr. al Battat said from the sidelines of an impromptu match between barefoot boys with thick, calloused soles.

On another day, Mr. Neumann and Mr. Le Moine brought several boxes of clothes to the Al Faris community center, a one-room concrete building where adults carry in crippled children to sit on threadbare carpets.

It looked like Christmas morning when Mr. Le Moine began passing out blue jeans, sweaters, soccer shorts and other goodies that had accumulated in American homes.

The center was founded by Aziz Hashim Al Ndawy, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, who lost both arms but managed to hang onto his bullet-scarred legs.

There are 1,500 children in the neighborhood, about 400 of whom are crippled from polio — a disease eradicated so long ago in the West that only senior citizens can remember its devastating impact on their parents’ generation.

“All these people need help, tools like wheelchairs. Wheelchairs are the most important,” Mr. Al Ndawy said.

Mr. Neumann and Mr. Le Moine returned to their home near the convention center at the end of a long day only to find that legal problems threaten to cut off the steady supply of used items from the United States.

Appeals for goods had gone out under the name of Operation Starfish, a makeshift charity started by Air Force chaplain Fred Viccellio and his aide, Technical Sgt. Van Dent, both of whom are due to return to the United States shortly.

But it is against military regulations for active-duty soldiers to solicit charitable contributions. It is also questionable whether the military aircraft that deliver mail and packages to war zones can be used for this type of operation.

Army Lt. A. Heather Coyne, who is in charge of the American-led coalition’s resources center for Iraqi charities, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), says U.S. officials are just trying to make sure there is no appearance of impropriety.

“They’re trying to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and trying to make sure that there is a way of putting out this information that isn’t misusing government property,” Lt. Coyne said.

Because of her position as liaison between Iraqi and foreign NGOs, Lt. Coyne’s name appeared on the address given out by Mr. Viccellio and Sgt. Dent:

Operation Starfish

C/O 1Lt. A. Heather Coyne

CPA/Baghdad Central

APO AE 09335

Asked if the address will still work for Americans who want to send things like shoes, toys and clothes to Iraqi children, Lt. Coyne replied, “I’ll still be here and we will make sure that it gets to the right Iraqi NGOs.”

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