Bryan Walsh, senior writer at TIME magazine, described it as “the most heartbreaking photo of 2015.”
Three year-old Alan Kurdi was one of at least 12 Syrian refugees who drowned on their way to the Greek island of Kos. The image of Alan’s lifeless little body, clad in a bright red T-shirt and dark blue shorts, sent shockwaves around the world.
I didn’t know that one little idea could turn into something so much bigger . . . I have learnt that God can do big things with anyone who is willing.
Mother-of-two Gia Kavanagh was surfing the internet at home when she came across that photo.
“My heart sank,” she says bluntly. “Why was my family privileged enough to be safe while these families were fleeing from war? I couldn’t answer that question. I wrestled with God that day.”
But Gia wasn’t content to sit back and feel sad. She longed to do something practical to help refugee families and she wasn’t alone. Many of her friends and family felt the same. Through social media, she learned that her cousins Tina and Estelle were planning to start a clothing drive for adult refugees. Meanwhile, her friend Raghida was raising funds, planning to visit Greece and offer financial support to those in need.
Being a mother, and with the photo of Alan Kurdi still fresh in her mind, Gia’s thoughts immediately went towards the refugee children. After the trauma and fear they had experienced, what could she do to give them a sense of security, comfort and love?
She considered the journey that these children were making with no possessions to call their own. She then thought about her own little girl and baby boy soundly asleep in the next room, each snuggled with their favourite cuddly toy. This gave her the idea of preparing backpacks for the kids which would not only contain physical needs like soap, warm gloves, and socks, but fun activities like skipping ropes, crayons, and cuddly toys. The backpacks would enable the children to carry these belongings on the rest of their journey.
But how would she get the backpacks to Greece? It had recently cost her around A$60 just to send two books. How much would it cost to send backpacks?
Fortunately Gia had family and friends in Lesvos, the frontline of the refugee crisis in Europe. They were happy to buy the backpacks and goodies in Greece and then deliver them firsthand to the refugees.
Her friend Panos owned a restaurant in Athens and Gia suggested it could be a drop-off point for the backpacks. Gia began posting about her plans and encouraging her Facebook friends to share her posts with their contacts. Many people from Greece and other countries in Europe began filling backpacks that Raghida and Gia’s father Peter then distributed to refugee children. At last count, over 300 backpacks have been donated.
But that’s not where the story ends. The “Happy Backpacks” project has now expanded into other areas of support for the refugees in Lesvos including the provision of clean clothes and blankets. And discipleship is in action. A woman in Canada has since discovered the endeavour via Facebook and contacted Gia; asking for advice on starting up the same project in Canada.
“I’m still shocked,” Gia says. “I didn’t know that one little idea could turn into something so much bigger. I’m not a large NGO or a charity. I’m just a church member at Concord Seventh-day Adventist Church. But I have learnt that God can do big things with anyone who is willing. As His Word says, in Zechariah 4:6, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but my Spirit’ says the Lord.’”
Vania Chew is PR/editorial assistant for Adventist Record.