With mylar, a glimmer of hope for Afghans

Daniel Schlessinger

As many as 14,000 Afghan children may have Feinberg School of Medicine pediatrics Prof. Craig Garfield to thank for their lives this winter.

Faced with either destructive war in their rural homes or safe havens in freezing cold refugee camps, about 35,000 Afghans chose the cold. From mid-January to mid-February, 28 children died from lack of warmth, a Feb. 12 New York Times article reported.

Garfield, a father of two young children, said after reading the article he was moved.

“My kids were asleep upstairs, and I just couldn’t get that image out of my mind,” Garfield said. “I just kept thinking of parents trying to do what’s best for their kids and their kids freezing to death.”

Garfield quickly brainstormed and determined that from an economic perspective, what most organizations had been doing by donating coal, shoes and warm clothes was not practical. Climate-appropriate clothes are only beneficial if the user can generate body heat; a newborn does not have that ability, Garfield said.

A longtime triathlon runner, Garfield said he remembered how at the end of each race runners used mylar blankets, made of metallic synthetic material, which can retain body heat. Even in the face of fierce winds and bitter cold, he theorized that a parent and child both wrapped in a mylar blanket could stay warm together. The parent would generate the heat, the blanket would trap it and the baby would warm up.

“In the neonatal unit, a lot of the time we even place kids in saran wrap to keep them warm,” Garfield said. “It was just like connecting a lot of dots together to think that this might be one solution.”

Garfield contacted the author of The New York Times article and an Afghan children’s aid organization, Aschiana Foundation, which currently provides supplies in the camps.

Aschiana recently constructed a medical center, but its president, Patricia Silberman, said it has not yet opened. The refugees are “always in a state of flux,” so it was difficult to make an impact with few supplies and a limited budget. She said neither clothes nor coal were very successful, financially or medically.

“Because of the unseasonably cold weather, following a very poor harvest caused by a terrible drought, there is less food and we have had to give much more help than normal,” Silberman said. “I sent (Dr. Garfield’s email) to our board of directors – it’s just genius.”

After Silberman’s organization heard the mylar blankets are thin and inexpensive, she said, everything moved “like a crisis.” Aschiana contacted another organization, the Lamia Afghan Foundation, which arranged to transport the four large boxes of 14,000 blankets on a cargo plane to Afghanistan. As of Wednesday, the blankets were en route to the camps, scheduled to arrive by the weekend, Silberman said.

Silberman said they have preliminarily named the effort “Operation Silver Lining.”

“The real message is that anyone can make a difference,” Garfield said. “To me, if you feel like you can do something, then go ahead and do it.”

[email protected]