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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Candy, Toy Soldiers for Refugee Kids

MTFrom left, Afghan refugees Sultan-Ahmed, 13, Favad, 12, Jamshid, 13, and Ahmad, 12, looking at their presents.
Excitement was in the air as about 100 young children, all of them refugees from Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq, waited for the toys they had been promised.

Since they had already been given small bags of chocolates, that excitement had spilled out of the seats of the Mormon church near the Sokolniki metro station where the kids had gathered, and many were running around the aisles when the U.S. Marines came in.

The children hushed immediately, and then whispers of "Are you afraid of them?" began to make their way through the room as the five U.S. Marines took their place at the front of the room on a recent Saturday.

Though assigned to guard the U.S. Embassy, on this day the soldiers were not in uniform and had come to hand out gifts as part of the Toys for Tots program, under the auspices of which Marines have been distributing toys to children in the Yuletide season since 1947.

"These kids need toys more than anyone else," said Sergeant Nathan Faraday, the organizer of the Moscow Toys for Tots program, which in addition to this event donated toys to a Moscow region orphanage for disabled children as well as to Love's Bridge, a Perm-based organization that helps street children.

"It's a small difference we're making, but it's good to give something back."

In the United States, Toys for Tots is a huge undertaking, with corporate and celebrity sponsorship, the latter at various times having included entertainers John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Forbes magazine named the charity among its top 10 charities in 2003.

But the Moscow chapter is not yet officially recognized as part of the program.

"We haven't passed in some of the documents yet," Faraday said, adding that the soldiers themselves raised all the money that they used to buy the toys.

"One of the things we did was to have a bake sale inside the embassy," Faraday said. "We probably could have gone out to other places in Moscow, but we don't really know Russian," he added.

Faraday said that the soldiers put 30,000 rubles ($1,100) toward buying toys for the refugee children and bought the toys at the central Detsky Mir store.

"We were a bit worried about buying toys for the girls," said Sergeant Tommy Musso. "But we were young once too, and we know a thing or two about buying toys."

"In fact, there were lots of really cool toys we wanted to keep. ... There was this candle-making set," he said.

"And the basketballs, definitely," chimed in Freddy Garcia, another Marine.

Dzhavar, an 11-year-old from Afghanistan, began dribbling his basketball in the aisle, talking a big game to a much-taller Bryce Vardel, a Mormon missionary who was on hand to help with the event.

"Come on, old man," Dzhavar said to his college-age foe.

And despite the soldiers' fears, 3-year-old Masha and her older sisters Pakiza and Mariyan tore open the cosmetics and jewelry sets they each received with glee.

"I know how to put on make-up!" Masha insisted to her sisters.

But the irony of receiving gifts from soldiers who had served in their home countries did not escape some of the children.

"They're giving us presents today only because they killed us in Afghanistan," whispered a young girl, who blushed immediately afterward and refused to give her name.

By the end of the gift-giving session, however, none of the children appeared to be afraid of the soldiers.

"I want to give thanks that there are people who consider these refugees people," said Gezahgn Wordofa, the head of Opora, a group that works with refugees from non-CIS countries in Russia and who brought the children and Marines together. "If not for the Marines, these children would have had a holiday without any gifts at all."

"It's really cool to get these presents from real soldiers," said Ahmad, a 12-year-old from Kabul, Afghanistan, as he held his gift, a set of toy soldiers with oversized plastic guns.

"Maybe next year I'll get the toy tank to go with it."

For more information on the U.S. Marines Toys for Tots program, contact the on-duty Marine at the U.S. Embassy at 728-5025.