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Monday, 24 December, 2001, 00:10 GMT
Gifts for Afghan children
Child with grandmother opening present
20,000 boxes were given out in Afghanistan
Children living in appalling conditions in refugee camps in Afghanistan have been eagerly digging into shoe boxes packed full of gifts by schoolchildren in developed countries.

The boxes - often wrapped in bright paper - are donated by children in Britain, the United States and elsewhere under a scheme called Operation Christmas Child.

It is run by the Christian relief and evangelism organisation Samaritan's Purse.

Many schools take part in the campaign, encouraging children to pack a box and bring it back in to school for collection.

Refugee children opening presents
Children find toys, sweets, toiletries and pencils in their boxes
The founder of Operation Christmas Child in Britain, Dave Cook, helped to deliver shoe boxes - and aid - to two refugee camps on the Afghanistan borders.

"There were about 10,000 tents there, sanitation was very poor, people are being sparsely fed and watered and I would estimate that about 70% of those in the camps were children under the age of 14," he told BBC News Online.

"There are mothers and brides there who are 13 years old, some are as young as nine."

Mr Cook said the children had been delighted with their gifts.

"The response was amazing, but then these are children who have never received anything.

"To see a seven year old put a Jelly Baby in its mouth for the first time, or to show a child how to use a toothbrush was quite something."

Most popular gifts

Children are encouraged to pack toys, sweets, pens and pencils as well as hair brushes or small items of clothing such as hats.

Mr Cook said some presents went down especially well.

"Cuddly toys were a big hit, as were small balls, dolls and pens and paper."

A total of 20,000 shoe boxes were distributed in the camps, together with 2,400 packs of emergency aid which included a tent, hygiene supplies, a radio, a sewing kit and plastic containers.

Dave Cook distributing boxes of presents
Dave Cook: "The response was amazing"
Mr Cook was moved by what he saw.

"I've never seen people so grateful," he said.

"You can't help reflecting on the lottery of life, seeing those children and thinking 'this could be me'.

"In life, we need to learn about the simplicity of this - of children giving to children," he said.

Mr Cook said his local guide, Ramin, had said of the operation: "This is wonderful - people giving to Muslims at their time of need."

Operation Christmas Child began in 1990, after the fall of Romania's President Ceaucescu.

The first Christmas shoe boxes were sent to Romania.

As well as Afghanistan, boxes have been delivered to Iran, South America, African countries, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.

Many go to orphanages or schools for children with disabilities as well as to poor families.

Last year, 727,606 were sent out from the UK and the Irish Republic.

The total this year is expected to reach about one million.

The organisers say school involvement increased this year too.

Refugee children at Maslakh camp, Afghanistan
"These children have never received anything," says Dave Cook
One of them, Ruth Jones, said: "It has gone very well. There has been about a 20% increase in boxes from schools.

"And we have had very good feedback from the schools, who have said the scheme helped their children to appreciate the difficult lives of other children."

For information on the UK scheme call 0870 011 2001 or e-mail info@samaritans-purse.co.uk

See also:

04 Nov 01 | Education
Children give for Christmas
04 Dec 01 | South Asia
No shelter for freezing Afghan refugees
15 Nov 01 | South Asia
UN aid shipment reaches Afghanistan
03 Dec 01 | TV and Radio reports
Afghanistan's missing millions
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