If someone asked you how many planes flew over you this week, chances are good you could not answer the question. You might be able to recollect the “special” planes or aircraft that flew over, but generally, aviation is something taken for granted in the United States.
Cadet Airman First Class (C/A1C) JaneBatson Mason, a member of the ACE Basin Composite Squadron, asked her fellow cadets and the squadron’s senior members to count for one week the number of planes or aircraft they saw and report at a recent virtual weekly squadron meeting.
Mason received responses like “six” or “hundreds,” and one senior member admitted that while they could name the fighter jets or the Coast Guard helicopter they saw that day, they didn’t pay attention to the “ordinary aircraft” that were seen in the air during the previous week.
Mason used this very tangible example to explain that for children living in the refugee camps in Northern Iraq — Yazidi families who have fled persecution from ISIS — the idea that a massive bird-like piece of steel could fly over them is almost inconceivable.
In August 2019, Mason and her family moved to Northern Iraq to serve the Yazidi refugees living there. Corky Mason, Cadet Mason’s mom, joined Civil Air Patrol as an aerospace education member (AEM) before leaving the United States for Iraq.
The family, who planned on continuing their homeschooling journey on the other side of the world, packed ACE curriculum provided by Civil Air Patrol along with homeschool needs. Mason and her family travelled to Iraq after she spent nearly a year developing a service project called the Yazidi Refugee Children’s Art Project, receiving approval and raising funds to support its effort.
The art therapy project was designed by Mason and given approval by the United Nations High Council after input by psychologist and trauma counselors working with the women and children housed in this refugee camp.
Mason’s mom said, “In 2018, we lived in Lebanon while I was doing relief work at a Syrian refugee camp. JaneBatson became acutely aware of the psychological needs of the children in the camp and decided to write an art therapy curriculum to address the trauma these children had faced as a result of war.
“After months of work and consulting with psychologists, psychiatrists and art therapists, she submitted her project to the UN High Council on Refugees for approval. In 2019 she received a sponsorship to implement her program in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) at a Yazidi refugee camp near Dohuk, Iraq. We left South Carolina in late August 2019, traveled to Kuwait and then on to Iraq, where we lived until the COVID-19 virus forced the closure of the camp to aid workers and our return to South Carolina.”
It was the in-between time — after therapy sessions — which connected the STEM education dots for Mason: the ACE education curriculum and the Yazidi refugees.
“Each day the children would participate in trauma counseling and in the art therapy projects,” said Mason. “But they were starving for education and educational experiences. They are so hungry for any type of interaction and education.”
Mason began teaching the children about airplane anatomy, how to make paper airplanes, and used the balsa planes and foam planes provided in the 4th-grade ACE curriculum to teach the children after their therapy sessions.
“The children have experienced so many traumatic things in their short lives,” Mason said. “And if you’ve been part of therapy sessions, unpacking that trauma can be physically and emotionally draining. The aviation lessons I was able to teach them took their minds off the trauma and gave them some fun with education mixed in.”
Her mom explained more about the environment in Iraq, where children soaked up this ACE curriculum. “The children in the refugee camp are living without access to basic amenities, including running water, electricity and the ability to attend school. JaneBatson realized that they were starving for any type of education. In between classes, children would line the fence where she was teaching, longing for contact with her and her sister. Instead of taking a break between classes, she began teaching them English, playing games and using the ACE program to teach them the basics of flight. The children made paper airplanes, whirlybirds and flew the rocket plane.
“The ACE curriculum became such an important part of our time at the refugee camp and gave the children a glimmer of hope regarding their future. So much of refugee work requires that you be able to keep hope alive and affirm their dreams of change. We watched children that on day one were emotionless turn into boisterous, excited aviators when the planes came out. ACE was able to spark creativity in these children and show them that anything is possible,” her mom said.
During this virtual leadership lesson, Mason gave her fellow cadets some concepts to consider. As she showed the canvas tents in which these children and their families live, the squadron discussed the feeling of confinement during COVID-19 relative to these refugees. While U.S. residents take for granted the fact that they have the ability to go to their room or another room in the house during the “shelter-at-home” COVID confinement, these refugees have one tent per family, no matter its size. And, while U.S. residents have digital devices, books, games and toys for distraction, these children have none of that.
“I watched them play with toys made from the trash,” said Mason.
Most members on the ACE Basin Virtual Squadron meeting got a bit of perspective on the shelter-at-home requirements in relation to the circumstances that Mason witnessed in Iraq.
For Mason, who wants to be a military aviator one day, the colorful foam airplanes provided in the ACE curriculum by Civil Air Patrol were a bright spot in the beginning of her volunteer service through Civil Air Patrol. Her efforts in the art therapy project are now being replicated in three additional refugee camps this fall.
For her squadron, her story about the imagination of flight in such a disadvantaged setting was a welcome change of perspective against the COVID-19 backdrop that has taken over 2020.
Although the ACE Basin Composite Squadron is currently meeting virtually, the emergency services training and preparation for community service continues. Those who are interested in joining the unit may email Capt Rachael J. Mercer, Unit Commander, at firstname.lastname@example.org.