The drawings break your heart. Burning homes. Tanks. Small bodies on the ground surrounded by pools of red. A mother holding a child who has blood streaming from her throat. Guns. Soldiers. Bombs. Things no child should even have to think about, let alone know how to draw.
Dean Byrd would look at the drawings and wonder: How do you help children who have lived with such trauma? What can you do for families so familiar with inhumanity? But during a monthlong stay near the Kosovo refugee camps in Albania, Byrd found a very simple answer: You do anything you can.Maybe it's just giving a hug. "There were some beautiful, beautiful children. And one of the most vivid memories was that of tracking a tear through the dirt on their little faces. The camps were so dusty, and they didn't understand what was going on. Sometimes, we found, just hugging a child made all the difference."
Maybe it's providing the warmth and comfort of a quilt. "In one case, we found 30 people who spent the night on a flat-bed truck. Think what a quilt could do."
Maybe it's something as simple as taking a picture. "These people had been through such trauma they had lost a sense of who they were. We found that by taking pictures of them we could help give them a sense of identity. They could talk about family history. The pictures gave them a point in time. It was almost as if," he says, emotion still resonating in his voice, "we were giving a gift of life."
'See what we can do'
The actions of the three-month war in Kosovo, as the Serbs set out to eliminate ethnic Albanians and were in turn bombed by NATO, have been well-documented. The politics are still being debated. But seeing and hearing firsthand about the atrocities of the war was a deeply moving experience, says Byrd, who visited the camps on an assignment as assistant commissioner of LDS Family Services.
Byrd, who is also a clinical psychologist, was told simply, "go and see what we can do." At that time, a number of countries had set up refugee camps inside Albania to help manage the thousands of refugees that had fled across the border. In addition, hundreds of Albanians had taken refugees into their homes.
A disproportionate number of the refugees were women and children, Byrd said. Most of the men and boys between 15 and 55 had been shot; estimates put that number at about 10,000. Most of the women had witnessed the slaughter of their sons and husbands, and he will never forget the expressions on their faces: pure, soul-deep grief. Some wanted to talk about what had happened; some simply sat, almost in catatonic stupors.
"Some wanted us to watch videos of the bodies. They told story after story of watching as soldiers came to their homes, ordered the men outside and shot them and would not even allow the women to bury their dead in the time allotted by Muslim belief. That level of grief was very hard to deal with -- very, very hard."
It is hard, even now, he says, for people to understand what the Kosovars had to deal with. "You hear about man's inhumanity to man. But this situation went even beyond that. These children had experienced things no one should experience, let alone a child."
Byrd knew he couldn't change the circumstances; his help had to be solution-focused. "We had to find ways to help them move on, no matter what had happened." And what seemed like a daunting task in the abstract turned out to be rather simple in the end. "We just did what we could."
Sometimes that meant building partnerships with other NGOs -- non-government organizations like UNICEF, Bethany Christian Services, the European Child Trust, Mercy Corps International and others that were there. "We were very impressed with what these groups were doing, but sometimes there were gaps in service, and we found we could fill those gaps. We found one family, for example, that had 14 people staying with them and no place for them all to sleep. We were able to get mattresses."
Another project involved bringing in textbooks and training materials so they could teach counselors how to deal with such traumas. "They have not had a need for counselors like this before in Kosovo, and we knew that after they left the camps, if they were able to go back home, they would still need that kind of help." Teaching, training, providing materials would mean the help would go on long after the camps were gone.
They could provide plastic stools so the refugees could have a place to sit. They could provide cookies and candy -- sweets that were beyond the budgets of many host families.
And they could help host families in other ways, says Byrd. "Sometimes the focus was so much on the refugees that the needs of the host families were overlooked." Albania, he says, is a poor country and tended toward small families. "Some of the first people to step forward to offer help were the poorest families. It was common to find 15 or 20 refugees sharing a three-room home. We could find ways to take that group out for awhile so the host family could have a break."
Sometimes, they worked through the small congregation of LDS Church members there; the church has about 750 members and several teams of missionaries in Tirana. But, as is always the case, aid was never limited to church members. Most of the refugees were Muslim. "That didn't make any difference." Situations like this, he says, "go beyond religion, beyond a system of belief. They go to basic universal needs common to us all."
Trauma and affirmation
That is the whole philosophy of Latter-day Saint Charities, says church spokesman Dale Bills. "This work in Kosovo is typical of the church's humanitarian aid. We always try to do a careful assessment, so that we can provide what people need -- not necessarily just what we have. But we always want to do whatever we can."
And, he says, they try to do it without a lot of fanfare, although sometimes the response and support of the church membership is so tremendous it is hard to hide it under a bushel. When the call went out for quilts for Kosovo, for example, more than 108,000 were donated to the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City. Some 30,000 of those went to the Kosovo refugees. Another 30,000 went to victims of the Turkey earthquake. More were sent to help flooding victims in Mexico.
Shipments of other goods and materials have gone to the needy in other parts of the world: Vietnam, North Korea, other former Yugoslav republics, Africa, South America. The politics of the situation never matter, says Bills, only the help. What is so nice, he says, is that the church not only has the desire to help but also the ability. "There's an increasing level of knowledge and experience."
Dean Byrd's experience in Kosovo was typical in another way. As is so often the case, those who were there to touch the lives of others were themselves touched in countless ways. "Those people had so little, and yet what they had, they wanted to share." If you have watched, he says, as a single apple is cut into 18 pieces so that everyone can have some, you know what generosity is.
Kosovo, he says, was one of those good/bad experiences. Grueling 17- to 18-hour days, constant exposure to unspeakable trauma and through it all an affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit. "It gave me a perspective that supersedes differences. I was reminded how much our humanity enriches us all."
The lessons he learned were many. Among them: "I will never look at a piece of fruit in the same way again. I will always buy and use UNICEF cards every Christmas from here on out."
And he will never forget the importance of small gestures and simple things -- of doing what you can.