After slopping around the mud teaching refugees how to use the water filters he’d brought to Kurdistan, Steve Chung wears the same mud-spattered black shirt to a meeting with the Dohuk state governor’s senior advisor. He’s too busy to worry about appearances. He will tell anyone who will sit still for more than five minutes why he came to Kurdistan, even if he wears a muddy shirt.
He’s here because he loves the Kurds and wants to help them in this period of crisis with the civil war in Syria. Tens of thousands of Kurds (like many Arabs) have been forced from their Syrian homes to flee across borders into refugee camps. Most have had friends or family members killed in the fighting. Many have lost their homes. All have lost whatever wealth they once had and now suffer the indignity of living a life of poverty in a tent. People who once took pride in their work, families and lives are now dependent on others for survival.
Chung comes by his love of the Kurds naturally. He served as a U. S. Army officer during Operation Desert Storm in 1991and volunteered to serve in the northern part of Iraq after the war ended. Though there are Kurds in Iran, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, most live in northern Iraq. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a home land of their own, and they had been brutally treated by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Over eight thousand Kurds were killed by poison gas by Hussein, but he murdered many more. After Desert Storm, the American military conducted Operation Provide Comfort, protecting the Kurds from more slaughter at the hands of Hussein. Chung’s service saw shadowy combat as he worked closely with the people. Something else good happened when he met his future wife Christine, a French nurse serving at a Kurdish hospital during some of the worst fighting.
Twenty years later, coupling his military experience with his participation in United Nations refugee operations, Chung, Michael Perlongo and Gary Kintingh co-founded Blackstar Group USA , a small business based in Mission, Texas, that provides disaster relief training to governments and law enforcement. When Chung heard about the Syrian refugee camp for Kurds, Chung looked at his check book and decided he was going to help, even if it meant paying for everything himself.
After a quick assessment trip to Iraqi Kurdistan last month, he returned home to negotiate with a water filter manufacturer and succeeded in not only halving the cost but having the same company pay eight thousand dollars to ship the filters to Kurdistan. Kudos to Sawyer Filters.
At the Domiz Camp, he alternated between talking to the refugees and talking with United Nations and Kurdish government leaders. Bureaucracies had to be mollified, petty differences overcome and many “grip and grin” meetings held before he could unpack the four thousand filters and start training the refugees.
But unpack them he did, and immediately got them to the camp to begin training refugee volunteers how to assemble, use and maintain the filters. Part of Chung’s plan to use camp residents rather than paid staff was to give the refugees a sense of pride in their camp community and be active citizens again.
Steve trained the trainers. He monitored their teaching and is making sure all families have a filter. “If the volunteers do their job well, in about ten days, we won’t have any more kids with diarrhea or have the risk of a cholera pandemic” said the tired but happy Chung. That’s good news because of the first nine families who were trained to use the filter, eighteen of the thirty five people had diarrhea.
But his day is not done. Back in his room, he has little time for sleep as he calls back to America to arrange for some other items to be sent to Kurdistan, then call more people for more meetings. Chung’s adrenaline addiction will show in the morning when he greets others with his enthusiasm and genuine love of the Kurdish people.