Rescue and Relief
“Rethinking Religion” is a radio, podcast and audio journal from Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. Please visit our website,www.ircpl.org for additional transcripts, unedited conversations, and a shorter summary edition.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Today, on “Rethinking Religion,” we’re talking about “Three R’s” refugees, rescue and relief…
(EVENT AUDIO EXCERPT)
GEORGE RUPP: We resettle 10,000 refugees a year. We have 350 staff across the country, many of them former refugees, so they know what it means to give out tough love and tell people they really got to get to the point where they can take care of themselves .
NORRIS CHUMLEY: That’s George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee.
(INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPT)
AMANYA EBYE: IRC provides humanitarian assistance and protection assistance to significant populations displaced by the war in Iraq. You have close to about 1 million people displaced from Iraq into Syria.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Amanya Michael Ebye, once himself a refugee, now the IRC’s Middle East Regional Director.
(INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPT)
RUTH MESSINGER: When we ask for the decisions to be made from the bottom up, from the grassroots, we are operating on another Jewish principle, b’tzelem Elohim in Hebrew; it simply means every person is equally made in the image of God.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: That’s Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service.
All these voices, all these perspectives – on social justice, politics, governments, and helping others – in this episode of “Rethinking Religion.” Stay with us!
(MUSIC – THEME OPENING)
NORRIS CHUMLEY: I’m Norris J. Chumley. In this hour of “Rethinking Religion” from Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, we bring you THREE lively conversations about social action. From the former President of Columbia, George Rupp, now the head of the International Rescue Committee, to a field worker, Amanye Michael Ebye head of Middle East IRC programs.
Completing the hour today on the subjects of “relief and rescue,” and religion: Ruth Messinger, former New York City Council member and Manhattan Borough President, now in charge of American Jewish World Service.
Let’s begin on the campus of Columbia with International Rescue Committee President George Rupp, at the School of International and Public Affairs. He’s introduced to a live audience by Mark Taylor, Chair of the Department of Religion and the Co-Executive Editor of this series.
MARK TAYLOR: Tell us about the organization, a bit about its history, what you do and take as your mission.
GEORGE RUPP: Well, as that picture of Einstein glancingly alluded to, we were founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein that it would be good to have a committee of notables in New York work with counterpart committees in Europe to rescue refugees from Nazi occupied Europe and help them get back on their feet in this country. So that, in a nutshell, is what we do. We rescue and then we get people back on their feet. And that’s why we’re in 24 offices around the US. We are the second largest, I guess, agency that works with the State Department in resettling refugees who are admitted to this country after being certified as having reason not to be able to go back home.
And that’s – it’s exciting work. I enjoy going to our resettlement offices and seeing how people who come here with nothing are really leading productive lives within a matter of months, until this economic cataclysm, which has now made it take longer. Because the only way the system works is if somebody finds a job, someone in the family, and that’s getting harder and harder to do. But we’ll get through that as well and we’re raising private money to make it more possible.
But what’s exciting is people come here with nothing. Within a matter of months, or now maybe as much as nine months, ten months, they’re able to support themselves, kids are in school, family members who don’t know English learn English, and without question the kids wind up going, almost without exception, going on at least a junior college, some to senior college, and become productive American citizens. So it’s – that’s an exciting process to watch and it continuous with what we’ve done historically.
MARK TAYLOR: Give us a sense of the scale, both in terms of staff and in terms of the people you serve.
GEORGE RUPP: Well, in the part of our operation in this country, we resettle 10,000 refugees a year. We have 350 staff across the country, many of them former refugees, so they know what it means to give out tough love and tell people they’ve really got to get to the point where they can take care of themselves. But when you ask about scale, it varies – the United States admits after 9/11 it went all the way down to about 25,000 refugees a year, now it’s back up to 75-80,000 refugees a year. There are 40 million uprooted people around the world, refugees and internally displaced. So, you can do the arithmetic. It means that two out of every thousand have any prospect of getting resettled in the United States. Or, to put it the other way around 998 out of every thousand have to figure out how to get on with their lives somewhere other than the United States.
And since very few – the numbers or refugees admitted to other developed countries are very small. All others together maybe about as many as come to the United States, so the vast majority either have to be integrated into the countries to which they fled, or when they have the opportunity go back where they came from. And we work on all sides of that equation. So, we resettle the small number of refugees admitted here. We work in the countries to which they fled where we give emergency assistance, but then also get them back on their feet through educational programs, medical programs, so that they can resume responsibility for their lives. And then, the best outcome, when it’s safe to go back we work with them in the countries from which they fled. And that means we have much larger operations outside the United States. Maybe just a little more on scale. We have 10,000 employees around the world. Of the ones outside of the United States, 98 percent are locals. Let’s just say in Afghanistan they’re Afghans, in Pakistan they’re Pakistanis.
On the front end of a crisis it’s sometimes more top heavy international staff until we can recruit and train locals, but our highest priority is to make sure everything that can be done by locals from within in those countries, if they’re trained, is done by them. And that means we can build capacity in those societies, and we also obviously stretch resources maximally, since it is enormously more expensive to have an international staff member, let’s say in Afghanistan or Congo, then to have an Afghan or Congolese person. Not to mention how much more expensive it is to have a soldier, just apropos of some of our current deployments.
MARK TAYLOR: So, some of these situations into which your people are sent, I assume are dangerous.
GEORGE RUPP: Well, I – they’re almost all dangerous. I mean it’s almost the definition of where we go. I guess that’s why rescue is our middle name. I mean we don’t go to places that are – that are safe and secure with a few exceptions. We work with Burmese refugees on the Thai side of the Thai Burma border, and that’s a relatively secure place. But it’s true, it is very dangerous.
Four of our staff members were killed by the Taliban. It was traumatic for the whole organization and it shows, or demonstrates that we work in very unsafe settings. But the fact that it’s the worst staff casualty number in the history of the IRC says something about the way we do operate. We are, we are in 1350 villages of Afghanistan, most of them in areas where westerners are not allowed to go. The people there are 100 percent Afghan staff. And their security, those are unsafe places where they are, but their security is that they are embraced and supported by the local communities in which they operate.
And one of the standard programs we have in Afghanistan, and we had it in Rwanda, we’ve got it in Congo, is what we call community driven reconstruction. And in Afghanistan it’s called the National Solidarity Program. And the way it works is, we have staffers go into a village, work with the village to select – we push for elections but sometimes it’s in other ways – select a community development council, which will decide what their highest priorities for development are. And it’s almost always a school, a sanitation system, a water system, a health clinic.
But they set the priority. And the resources then come, in the case of – I’ll just use Afghanistan, although we can multiply it by others, come through the Ministry of Rural Development in this case, and the resources are very carefully audited and monitored, and allow the building of the structures, or the facilities, or the resources that that village community wanted to have.
MARK TAYLOR: Can you speak of some other countries, where – I mean, the situation must approach the intractable in some of these situations.
GEORGE RUPP: When the International Rescue Community went into Iraq in 2003, when the war started – we were strongly requested, by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, if we would be willing to go in, because we’d worked closely with them elsewhere and they thought it would be very important because they expected there’d be major uprooted population flows and the need for the usual speed of services that we do, namely water, sanitation, basic health care.
And so, they’re really in a quite horrific situation in Syria and in Jordan, not able to go back to Iraq, not being accepted for resettlement, except in small numbers in US and other countries.
I mean one of the real challenges of refugee settlements is that the refugees are almost always prohibited from working outside the refugee settlement itself. So wherever possible, we employ refugees as our staff members. But we also, the further problem – the last – we don’t want to have a lot of tensions between the refugee camp, and the surrounding community, so we also try to make sure there’s some level of employment for the community outside. I feel constrained to say a few things about refugee camps. Namely, they’re awful. I mean they’re very bad for men, women and children. And it’s only in certain circumstances that they’re the least awful alternative, but it is really one of our high priorities is wherever possible to move away from long term refugee camps.
I still remember the first – the first large camp I visited, my first six or eight – the first trip I took to Africa with the IRC. And it was a camp for Burundian refugees in Tanzania. And, I just went away completely – I don’t depress easily, but I really was extremely down after being there. Because those people had been in that camp for over 20 years, lots of kids who were born there, grew up there, and actually got a better education, and better healthcare, than they would have gotten if they weren’t in the refugee camp, but as a result were incapable of going back to where they – their parents had come from and supporting themselves. Because they, I mean – they had learned, but didn’t want to then go back and be farmers.
And so, it’s a very complicated situation. And we are involved in a fair number of long-term refugee settlements, and wherever possible we work our way out of them. And so the camp that – the first camp I visited – in Tanzania with Burundians, they have now gone back to Burundi. They’ve had a very tough time getting back on their feet back in Burundi, and we’ve worked with them there, but it’s far better than becoming basically dependent on the international community, which is what happens if you’re in a refugee camp.
And that’s where UNHCR plays a very important role. Antonio Gutierrez, the High Commissioner, would agree completely if we can possibly not have refugee camps it would be far better. It works in every way to get alternative arrangements. But sometimes – until it’s safe to go back there are no good alternative arrangements for the same reason that the Iraqi Palestinians are not going to be allowed to go – aren’t being allowed to go into Jordan or Syria, and they also can’t go back readily. So, it’s a very – refugee camps are very tough propositions.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: You’re listening to “Rethinking Religion,” this episode on the subject of “Relief and Refugees” with George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee. After our live interview, we looked for a voice from the field – and found Amanye Michael Ebye, director of Middle East Services for IRC. I spoke with him recently at their New York City offices.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Your work in the Middle East for the past three years as we speak right now, could you tell us a little bit about the mission there and what have you been up to?
AMANYA EBYE: Yeah. IRC provides humanitarian assistance and protection assistance to significant populations displaced by the war in Iraq. You have close to about 1 million people displaced from Iraq into Syria.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: And those are into Syria.
AMANYA EBYE: In Syria. You have about a half-million displaced in Jordan. You also have about 2.4 million displaced inside Iraq. So we work in Jordan and Syria, providing – in Syria we provide education assistance, we provide livelihood training for the refugees there. In Jordan we provide prevention of violence against women, we provide non-formal educational assistance. And we’ve also over the last two years provided cash assistance to the very, very vulnerable. Inside Iraq we build houses for the very vulnerable, we have been able to provide education to children who are about to drop out of school. We have rehabilitated schools. We provide legal assistance to the very poor, who probably would not be able to claim their own rights, like there are no Russian cards, or be able to get that documentation process, because there is a lot of bureaucracy. You need representation; they need a lawyer. They can’t afford their lawyers. So IRC has had lawyers who represent these poor people and help them to secure their rights.
I think overall we are helping over 200,000 people across the three countries. It’s very – the work that we do is very critical. I think what has been my – the challenge recently is that the interest of donors to provide assistance to organizations like our own, providing assistance to Iraqis is dwindling. And I think it’s because of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So the interest has shifted and others are saying that Iraq is a rich country it should be able to provide assistance to its own people. Yes, Iraq has money from oil, but it requires an infrastructure; it requires it to rebuild itself to be able to provide that support. And until that is possible, organizations like IRC and the U.N. and others must be facilitated to provide significant output to the pockets of vulnerability, the poor people who are still in Iraq and need significant assistance for shelter, employment, education, protection, legal rights representation, agriculture support, food.
Jordan, for example, has the highest proportion of refugees in the world. It has the Palestinian refugees and it also has the Iraqis. So it actually has been estimated that for every four people you see, three Jordanians in Jordan, three are refugees. Seventy-five-percent are refugees.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Good heavens.
AMANYA EBYE: You know, it’s the highest. So the countries have been generous. They open their doors, they’ve provided security housing, and they need international community support to be able to shoulder this burden. That’s why countries like the United States, the European Union, and other generous donors should not only provide support to the humanitarian organizations like our own, like IRC, but also provide support to the governments in the region to be able to provide services like security, other services like water, you know, health care, that are critical to the populations that they have opened their doors to.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: In other words, rescue work, emergency relief work.
AMANYA EBYE: Correct. They need – because they themselves are burdened by the populations, the population growth rate is very, very fast in the Middle East region. Sixty percent of the population is below the age of 25, and then water scarcity is – they are faced with a lot of challenges, and when you add on such a significant number of people crossing the border with very little or nothing, and now continuously falling into poverty, it compounds the problem that the countries have to face. And also the refugees themselves have to face.
I think in addition to providing assistance to the countries that are hosting the refugees, assistance to the governments, I mean the organizations, like IRC and others, I think the countries also should be open and generous to open their doors, like the United States and others, to receive refugees for resettlement who may not at all be in a position to return to Iraq, even if peace returned. There are those who left in a way that is so traumatic that I don’t think they’ll be able to go back, and they won’t even feel safe staying in Jordan or Syria.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Is that a big part of the IRC’s program, to resettle people?
AMANYA EBYE: Yes.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: I noticed in your annual report you mentioned some resettlement in the United States.
AMANYA EBYE: We do resettle Iraqis and other refugees into the United States. In fact, IRC has the overseas program, the international program, and then we have the US, which does almost every settlement in a number of offices in the United States. But in addition to IRC, doing the resettlement here, the other countries should open their borders, you know, the U.K., you know, Sweden and others. We’ve unfortunately seen a return of refugees from Iraq, those who were resettled or accepted in third countries being returned to Iraq thinking that it’s gotten safe, and I think it’s not yet the right time to do so.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: In my research I’ve discovered reports of 1 to 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. Many of these refugees are Syrian Christians. Tens of thousands of Iraqi women have been forced into prostitution. In 2007, Syria placed strict controls on the number of Iraqis pouring into the country. Repatriation efforts have been slow, tensions between religious factions; Sunnis, Shiites, etc. Do these still come into play?
AMANYA EBYE: Actually Syria is a very – Syria and Jordan and Southern Iraq, I mean there are challenges. The sectarian violence has for sure ignited the fuel, for instance, that may not have been on the surface. But for Christians and the other sects, the Muslim sects, I must say that my stay in the Middle East for three years, I have not seen any significant tensions between them. In fact, in Jordan the Christians worship freely just as well as Syria. I think Syria, for example, it’s more secular and it’s not even Islamic. It’s not an Islamic country; it’s a secular country. It’s an Arabic country; it welcomes all Arabs, Christians and others.
I have not seen anything that would indicate that there is – unfortunately we do hear reports of prostitution in these countries. It’s become an unfortunate coping mechanism because of lack of alternatives for women, and it’s an unfortunate thing that it’s happening. And that’s why we have programs in place to provide support and livelihood alternatives to women and girls, so that they’re not desperate enough to go into prostitution.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: In our conversation with the president of IRC, George Rupp, he mentioned a term: “community-driven reconstruction.” Could you tell us a little bit about that? What is community-driven reconstruction?
AMANYA EBYE: It’s a term we now use where communities are provided the opportunity to identify their own needs, their priorities, and direct the investments from organizations to help them rebuild their lives. For example, mostly after wars you have schools destroyed, water systems destroyed, roads needing reconstruction, houses, individual houses needing construction and public clinics, hospitals.
The process of community-driven reconstruction is the communities will be provided the opportunity to sit down and look at what needs to be done and prioritize, and then use the resources and do most of the work themselves and hold themselves accountable, including setting up structures that will do this work, accounting and managing the construction processes. I think it’s a very, very empowering process. It’s something that we now continuously realize also helps the communities to heal.
Because one thing that normally happens during war is the trust between sections of the community gets broken. Like Rwanda, for example, during the genocide, neighbors attacked neighbors. And as part of the healing process, when people are working together on a school or they get together back on a committee, it also helps reconciliation. So in addition to empowering the community, making the right decisions, and making the community own the processes, it also helps them to heal. So it’s a very strong post-conflict reconstruction approach.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Other people, other relief workers with other organizations have told me that they have a big concern with women and want to help women. Do you see women as important in the community-driven reconstruction process?
AMANYA EBYE: Yes. What normally happens, again, what we’ve seen is during these conflicts is, men tend to stick up arms and then most of them are killed. You have more widows, you have women-headed households, in some of the cases the men are still in the front line as rebels, and then you have camps where women are living on their own. The tendency in some of these rural communities is to have the few men remaining to do the work, and what it means is that you’re excluding a bigger population of women. And some of the programs that the men will design alone may not necessarily meet the needs of the community, especially the needs of women. They may, for example, build a water system that may not be safe for women to go out and collect water at night or put latrines in a place that is not safe.
And I also think that – I think the beauty of working in these places is to make sure that there is contribution of men and women, that the women are represented, that they contribute to the design of these programs, they make the selection of where things should be implemented. Because as we’ve seen, especially also in things like food distribution, there’s a tendency when men receive their food, when they’re very desparate in these situations, not to suggest that all men are unreliable or irresponsible-
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Of course not.
AMANYA EBYE: But we’ve seen situations where the men may trade the food for maybe a few cigarettes and the family may suffer.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: And it never gets to the kids.
AMANYA EBYE: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s always good to transfer that ownership to women. We know it guarantees – it much more guarantees the right of access to children than when you do it largely through men. So like food distribution, decisions where projects should be built, schools. I think women should be significantly involved to make sure these projects are sustainable and they also meet the protection needs of women.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: You’re Ugandan. But you’ve been the director of Middle Eastern services for IRC. How did you come to the Middle East? What brought you to that role, as the director of Middle East operations?
AMANYA EBYE: Yeah. So I could start from – so I joined IRC in 1994 in Rwanda as a program manager for the unaccompanied children. My role was to reunite separated children with their relatives or parents where possible. We were successful in reuniting about 4,000 children.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Where did you grow up?
AMANYA EBYE: I grew up in a very turbulent country, between when I was born – I was very young when President Idi Amin Dada was overthrown; he was a dictator in Uganda. And the first eight years of my life were turbulent; there was violence all over the place. We used to hide from the soldiers when we saw them. Some of my relatives were killed during that period. And there was a lot of suffering and poverty over the years. So I think growing up in this suffering desolation and seeing the deprivation the population has been through may have attracted me to join the social work degree to provide services and support to the vulnerable populations.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: In your work with IRC you assist many displaced people. Were you or your family displaced?
AMANYA EBYE: Yes, in 1979. And I actually think this is what also attracted me to work with displaced populations. In 1979, when the war broke out between Tanzania and Uganda, when they were trying to overthrow Idi Amin Dada, I was just eight years old. And we had to leave in a hurry, to leave my mother behind, who was pregnant at the time with twins. And we had to get on a lorry with my father and my three young brothers and had to be rushed through, you know, very rural routes, roads that had never – we’d never used, to be taken for safekeeping at my grandfather’s place. And we were separated from my mother for about six months, I believe.
And I was very small and I had to take care of my brothers. You can imagine, I was just eight years, and my next brother was I believe six, another one was five, another one was three. I don’t even remember how we managed. Our grandmother and grandfather and all our cousins were very supportive, but for sure we missed our mother. That was the first thing, we were separated and it was, you know, turbulent. We left most of our things behind.
Then the second time was in 1985, our school had to be closed because the seven soldiers were advancing towards Kampala, and they came from the western part of the country. And the priests in the seminary, fearing that our school may be overrun or affected, they asked us to go home. And there was no transport at the time, so I had to – with my colleagues I had to, you know, pick a few things you can carry on your head, I remember carrying my suitcase – and go home. So I think I walked not all through, but stopped at my friend’s place for a few days, but walked initially for 30 miles. Then I went to my grandfather’s place, I stayed there for a few days, and then I went finally home. I think the three stages of our journey was each about 30 miles. I was just 14 years old; I was carrying a metallic suitcase. I remember reaching home and when I saw my mother I was very, very relieved. I mean at the time my father was already dead.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Your father was dead?
AMANYA EBYE: Yeah. My father was killed by – I just – we don’t know. He was found at our ranch and shot dead on his saints day; on the 30th of November 1983. When he was having a family party he was killed by bandits, shot dead in the presence of my mother. And I had just left my father – I’d said goodbye to him on the 18th of November. And I remember something strange when I was saying goodbye to him, something that occurred to me that after he was killed it seemed to me that there must have been some premonition that I may not see him again. But at that time I didn’t know.
He had said a few words the day before when we ate together in a restaurant. He said, you know, “Enjoy yourself as much as you can. You never know how long you’ll live.” So I don’t know what he meant. This was just a few days before; I left on the 18th of November, and then he was killed on the 30th of November 1983. Yeah.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: I’m so sorry.
AMANYA EBYE: Yeah. Thank you.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: You just heard Amanya Michael Ebye, Director of Middle East programs for the International Rescue Committee. This is “Rethinking Religion” from Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. I’m Norris Chumley.
We return to Mark Taylor’s conversation with the president of the IRC, George Rupp.
MARK TAYLOR: We can make a distinction between so-called natural disasters and sociopolitical disasters. Looking ahead it seems to me that issues of climate change and – one of the things that I worry about a lot is water, both its availability and its quality, and by extension food supply in many of the countries that you work in. There’s going to be a huge, huge problem as we move ahead.
GEORGE RUPP: I think you’re absolutely right. And, I mean, we as an agency are looking very carefully at the ways in which environmental degradation is, in the end, indistinguishable from the conflicts that erupt. Take an example that all of you read a lot about, Darfur. Darfur illustrates, you know, just a whole range of crosscurrents. There are also deep ethnic problems within Darfur, both within Darfur and between Darfur and the rest of Sudan. But along with those sorts of issues, and in the case of Darfur, there’s no religious issue, because it’s all Muslim. I mean the north, south debate it can be characterized in many ways as Muslim/Christian, although that’s also an oversimplification. But to your question, Darfur, the certification has exacerbated the problem in Darfur.
MARK TAYLOR: Yeah.
GEORGE RUPP: So there’s a basic tension between people who call themselves Arabic, they’re pastoralists, and they migrate, and sedentary agriculturists, who are called Africans. I mean in the taxonomy there. But it’s very clear that the pastoralists have over time had to – felt they had to encroach more and more on the agricultural land, because they simply couldn’t sustain their flocks as the Sahara moved further and further south. So, all of the other conflicts going on in Darfur are not really distinguishable from that root conflict, which is a fight over land and water and resources.
MARK TAYLOR: And what about population issues as they bear on these? Because in certain ways they’re directly tied, obviously to environmental, and water, and food supply issues that cut in different ways and complicated ways?
GEORGE RUPP: Yeah. Well, the population issues are going to vary hugely from place to place, but life is so harsh in places like western Sudan, that there actually is not population growth. If there were that would only exacerbate these resource problems. People have lots of children, and many children die, so that the mortality under five is very high. People have a lot of children because they want to have some children survive, but the end result is that the population is not growing significantly. And that’s not true in all countries, but I think in western Sudan it’s certainly the case.
MARK TAYLOR: Dealing with what you deal with day in and day out — George and his colleagues put us all in their debt and we thank you for coming this evening and sharing this, and just helping us to become more aware of what’s going on. Thanks George.
GEORGE RUPP: Thank you very much.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Continuing our take on the three R’s – rescue, relief and refugees – perhaps we should add another “R”: religion. We want to bring another voice, another angle into the mix today. So we invited Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, a faith-based international organization. Although AJWS serves a similar mission to that of the International Rescue Committee, its focus is slightly different…
NORRIS CHUMLEY: You’ve said publicly, “Pursuing justice is a Jewish obligation. We remember what it’s like to have been strangers ourselves.” How is the American Jewish World Service a religious organization informed by Judaism, in terms of action?
RUTH MESSINGER: Very much as you just said, that is we see the Jewish obligation to pursue justice, to try to help heal the world, as needing to be interpreted for the 21st Century. The world is a different place now than it was when the Bible was written or when the rabbis commented on the Bible. Actually, from my point of view the rabbinic commentary is pretty perspicacious, and indeed it does imply that there will always be an other or a stranger.
And there are lots and lots of occasions in Jewish worship and ritual life where you are told, in fact, to pursue justice, where you are told to make your belief real by acting on what you’ve learned, where you are told to remember what it meant to be the other and the stranger and to respond to today’s other and stranger. There are lots of ways of interpreting that.
And by the way, we are very clear that virtually every faith has its own way of thinking about its obligation to take care of the needy. I have the unusual and very satisfying opportunity to work in a faith community, interpreting the precepts of Judaism for life in the broader world in the 21st Century. So all the groups that we help, now – 450 grassroots groups in 34 countries around the world – the people are not Jewish. The people are, in fact, small microfinance, agriculture, women’s empowerment, education organizations at the grassroots level, started by local people who are coping with the ravages of poverty, hunger, disease, oppression. They’ve started to make change for themselves.
What we do is find them, get to know them, partner with them, and support them in the work that they are doing. But we do it out of a faith base and draw on support from the Jewish community to do this work.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: What puts your faith in action?
RUTH MESSINGER: I think I want to say – I want to answer this question carefully, because I think that one of the reasons for contemporary tensions between and among religions is people asserting that they have the true way. That is certainly not what we believe. We do our work informed by Jewish precepts and values. And I’ve tried to describe some of those to you. I would add one, which I don’t begin to argue to you makes us unique, but it does make us more unusual than I wish we were, and that is we do all of our grant-making work by asking the organizations that we find, “What’s your priority? What is it you’re trying to do here? How might we help you with a skilled volunteer, with a group of college students, or with a grant?”
And when we do that, when we ask for the decisions to be made from the bottom up, from the grassroots, we are operating on another Jewish principle, b’tzelem Elohim in Hebrew; it simply means every person is equally made in the image of God. And again, other faiths also have their own language for that concept, but I find that too many people in the broader international development community decide in New York or Washington or London or Geneva that they know what this particular community in South America or East Africa needs. Or they decide that what they’re really good at, which might be true, is setting up schools. And so everyplace they go they set up schools. You know, if the only tool you have is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.
We are much more eclectic in the kinds of program efforts that we support, because we don’t think there is just one thing that groups around the world need; we think what they need most fundamentally is to have someone actually see them as the best possible decision-makers for their own future, and then to act on that.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: One thing that I found particularly cool about AJWS is that many volunteers are rabbinical students. How did that program get started? And what do they say after a year of experience on the ground?
RUTH MESSINGER: Okay, I wish we had them for a year; that would be really great. It’s a very short piece of their lives. But here’s the deal: part of our mission – obviously we’ve been – you and I have been talking about that part of our mission which is about trying to eradicate the worst ravages of poverty, hunger, and disease around the world.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Yes.
RUTH MESSINGER: The other part of our mission is to educate in the North American Jewish community about global responsibility and global citizenship. So if you think about how to do that, there are a lot of different ways to do that. Our service programs in general help, our educational materials help, my public speaking helps. But obviously a good way to do that is to grab the Jewish leaders of this coming century who are currently in rabbinical school and ask them to take an eight-day vacation period – it’s their mid-winter break or their summer break – and to go to do both service and study. Partly, of course, to help that local community fertilize its field or build a school, but mostly because we then have 25 rabbinical students, all denominations, working across denominational lines, understanding the dimensions of global poverty, quite literally getting the powerful material for the teaching that they will do for much of the rest of their professional lives.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: How specifically could Congress, could the administration effect change in foreign aid policy? How should foreign aid be rethought, do you think?
RUTH MESSINGER: That list is much too long.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: It’s a big, big list.
RUTH MESSINGER: The good news is there’s a coalition in Washington called the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, which is working on this issue with particularly Congressman Howard Berman from Los Angeles. One issue, which I’ve actually mentioned to you already, Norris, is putting local procurement into these aid bills.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Yes.
RUTH MESSINGER: We’re pushing very hard around various current appropriations to be sure there’s a strong local procurement clause that basically says if these are dollars to help this country rebuild, then as much as possible the material for that rebuilding should be bought in-country. The consultants on those projects, if they exist in-country, that should be your first resource. We should not send food to countries where food is being grown.
Now, of course, sometimes there’s a massive drought and every crop dries up and then the world needs to send in emergency food. But we have much too unpleasant a track record of delivering food to an area that might have been damaged by a natural disaster, when the local farmers in that country will then be put out of business because there is no one to buy their food because surplus food is being delivered free.
We think that poverty – to significantly alleviate poverty around the world, more people have to have more rights. They have to have a right to an education; they have to have a right to control over their own bodies; they have to have a right of access to health care that is quality health care, that is really there; they have to have a right to economic opportunity. And so to do relief is very short-term; to do development and social change means investing in and supporting human rights expansion, and that’s very much what we do.
But even in a disaster situation, our focus is on the concept of relief to reconstruction, disaster to development; how do you use this opportunity to help change the way things were. Some of the work we did many years ago in the tsunami-affected regions helped communities who had lost their fishing industry because of the impact of the tsunami, not only rebuild that industry – that is, we were already buying boats and fishing nets, rather than delivering fish. But we went way beyond that and we found in some of those communities an interest in diversifying the activities that they might pursue. Just one example I’m thinking of, we helped a group of women in one of these fishing communities be trained as beauticians. And if you’ve ever been to a Hindu wedding, this is a big professional opportunity.
And it was their first chance to be in control of their own incomes, to learn a skill, and to bring dollars into their households at a point in which it was clear for reasons of geology essentially, that it would take a while for the fishing industry to come back.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Efforts to stop the violence and the genocide, the Save Darfur campaign has had a lot of success in raising the visibility of the crisis in the West, but unfortunately it’s not translated into a lot of progress on the ground. What is AJWS doing is in Darfur?
RUTH MESSINGER: What we’re doing in Darfur is what we can, which is to try to keep people focused on a problem that as you indicate, has not gone away. So we had a very significant role early on in responding to those very first people who identified the crisis in Darfur, who correctly labeled it as a genocide. We mobilized people, by the way, of all faith backgrounds and in secular human organizations to form the Save Darfur coalition. American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were the co-founders of the Save Darfur Coalition.
But it was interfaith and secular from the beginning. It did demonstrations; it did a huge event on the mall in Washington in 2006. American Jewish World Service worked on the Darfur issue from the very beginning with kind of our left and our right hands. We did direct aid on the ground to people who had been forced to flee their homes, whose relatives had been killed and were living in camps for displaced persons because of the ongoing violence. And we built an advocacy effort on our own and through the Save Darfur Coalition, to try to get the policymakers in Washington to not just label Darfur a genocide, but to do everything possible to stop it.
Now, essentially six years in, we have created huge visibility about the crisis in Darfur, but we’ve also run into people beginning to believe that if we haven’t stopped what’s happening now, we never will. And our position is there are still several million people living in camps. Right now the situation in Darfur is complicated by the situation in the rest of Sudan, but we have a major ongoing policy advocacy effort to promote actions towards a comprehensive peace in Sudan that would prevent – if followed, we think they would prevent a renewed outbreak of the war between North and South Sudan, which is unfortunately imminent; they would continue to provide resources for the people of Darfur; but they would look to build a country with much less violence, much of which, by the way, is gender-based and very ugly, and that was moving towards an effective peace agreement.
And I want to say that the consequence of not doing this and having more violence and quite possibly open conflict in Sudan is just devastating for the world. Those problems are devastating whenever and wherever they occur, but Sudan is the largest country in Africa and it has seven or eight other countries on its borders, and any violence inside that country immediately spreads across the borders.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Has social media changed the way AJWS, or rather NGOs go about their work?
RUTH MESSINGER: Every day. Every day we do more. We have a magnificent, magnificent Web site, www.ajws.org. We use Facebook, we use Twitter, we do constant communications with our supporters and our activists. We participate in several blogs, we look for lots and lots of different ways to get the message out about the work we do, to urge other people to support us, and to pursue these various specific policy, advocacy, and budget changes, and social media makes it really possible to reach lots of people and get them to go on their own computers and send one more letter or sign one more petition. It’s very helpful.
NORRIS CHUMLEY: Our thanks to Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service.
We’d also like to thank George Rupp, President of the International Rescue Committee, and Amanye Michael Ebye.
As we conclude, let me ask, how can you put your beliefs into action, to offer rescue and relief to someone in need? Please visit our website and share at IRCPL.ORG.
“Rethinking Religion” is a project of Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life in New York City. To hear the entire, unedited conversations as well as a short-summary edition, and for transcripts, visit our website at IRCPL.ORG
I’m Norris J. Chumley, for “Rethinking Religion.”
Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved