Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Trying to Save the World, One Congressman at a Time

Posted by Tim Lash - IRC on 24 October, 2008

Andrea Romero

Andrea Romero

Guest post by Andrea Romero, IRC Advocacy Intern

From April to August of this year I worked as an unpaid intern in the Washington, D.C. office of the International Rescue Committee. I traveled to Washington from Stanford University where I am a student because of my interest in the IRC’s global humanitarian work. I joined the IRC’s government relations and advocacy team that works with – and attempts to influence – U.S. government agencies, Congress, and international agencies.

The job of our team is to understand the needs of people who have been uprooted by war, civil conflict or ethnic persecution and then lobby the U.S. government to come to their aid. We work to garner support for IRC programs and for the issues we care about: health care, child survival, stopping violence against women, post-conflict development, and good governance. And if that isn’t hard enough, we work with government officials who are notorious for having a short attention span for anything that’s not easily translatable into a five-second sound bite.

The most important lesson I learned while working in Washington, much to my surprise, is that the majority of Congress people are extremely accessible and ridiculously ordinary. I do not say this out of disrespect or to shock anyone, but only to say that our government is more democratic and open than I ever thought it could be. Anyone can walk into a government office, in their home district or in Washington, and set up a meeting with their senator, representative or a member of their staff.

This fact completely changed my idea of government being detached from everyday life. This is why the IRC has advocates on behalf of our humanitarian efforts in saving those who need it most. Some members of Congress care about nuclear warheads, others care about energy policy, healthcare, farmers, pets, or what have you. The IRC, in particular, seeks out Congress people and state officials that care about refugees and the other victims of war who are left displaced, vulnerable and in need of help.

That means whoever is working in our office is doing the best to set up every meeting, attend every forum, basically be everywhere at once where people gather to debate U.S. policy toward global hotspots, in order to prove to politicians that we are doing the best job in the whole world at protecting refugees and seeing that the world’s most vulnerable have a place to turn. The IRC and many other NGOs and government supported organizations all have an interest in influencing the debate on humanitarian issues.

What makes the IRC different? Call me crazy, but I think the IRC has some of the most educated, driven, experienced and well rounded people in Washington, DC. We are no nonsense. We get down to the nitty-gritty programming and execution. We have to communicate back and forth on the ground to countless countries where our personnel are hard at work, often risking their lives for the lives of others. Our experienced field workers are the cornerstone of our organization upon which we ground our advocacy. Before we speak, we want our work to precede us.

Even with all this on their plates, my colleagues somehow manage to stay sane. They are working, quite simply to save the world. And they know that as long as they keep pushing, progress can be made little by little. Ever so slowly, that battle for awareness or funds or equipment that initially seemed as steep as Mt. Everest becomes more like a rolling hill.

There are billions of ways we can make change just by speaking our minds about issues to government decision makers. If it’s not starting at a monetary donation, it’s creating ‘awareness’ — and from there, hopefully, information and involvement will spread like wildfire. It’s really that simple. Go figure.

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A new way to heal / Boise

Posted by Wynne Boelt on 11 September, 2008

1)	Artwork created by child resettled by the IRC in Boise
Artwork created by a child resettled by the IRC in Boise Photo: The IRC
The IRC’s Boise office is helping refugee children cope with mental anguish and trauma in a new program that combines art therapy and a psychotherapy technique called Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or EDMR.  The program gives small children who have fled war and persecution a chance to work through traumatic memories without actually having to talk about them.

IRC Boise resettlement director Leslye Boban told The Boise Weekly that she hopes the program can one day be used to help adults cope with trauma too.  “We’re working with a counseling group to also do the same technique with the parents, because you can’t work with the kids and open them up like that and go home to a chaotic, unstable environment.”

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Northern Iraq: Waiting to go home

Posted by jessmalter on 3 September, 2008

Jessica Malter blogs from a region of Northern Iraq bordering Iran and Turkey where she joined an IRC team bringing clean water to displaced villagers.

In the remote Qandil mountain range in Northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran have been conducting military maneuvers to rid the region of Kurdish separatist groups believed to be based in the area. The ongoing bombing and shelling has terrified hundreds of villagers who live there, disrupting their tranquil way of life and sending them running.

Over the past several months 120 families have fled the fighting and are living in what has come to be known as the Mangory Bridge Camp.

“We hid in the caves around our villages for 20 days hoping the shelling and bombing would stop, but it only got worse so we came here,” Mer told me, pictured here with her daughter. “It is only a few hours from our home, but it is peaceful. Now we are just waiting. We want to go home as there is no life for us here, but it is still too dangerous.”

One of the biggest problems the families face in the camp is a lack of clean water. Warda, pictured outside of her hut, told me she thinks her daughter is sick from drinking dirty water.

“We know the water is dirty because we have to use it to wash clothes and dishes,” she says. “The children play in it and sometimes end up drinking it, even though we have told them not to.”

When the IRC learned that residents of the camp were in need of drinking water, they moved quickly to get three water tanks installed the area. The tanks were delivered the day I visited the camp and are being connected to a nearby spring, which will provide the much needed clean water.

The women in the camp say they are very happy about the arrival of the new water tanks. They say it will make their daily routine easier and will keep their children healthy. They say their main concern now is where they will go when they are forced to leave the Mangory Bridge Camp.

In a month’s time the water will rise and the families will have to abandon the area. “We don’t know where we will go if the bombing and shelling hasn’t stopped by then,” said Seimya, pictured on the right. “It would be best if we could go to the town a few miles away, but we have no money to pay for rent. We are hoping the local authorities will help and provide us with some simple houses if we can’t go home.”

After four months of being away from their village, the children in the camp are bored and desperate to get home. They say they have very little to do here and back home they can at least help their families tend to their sheep and crops and have more space to play. This summer, their main activity has been racing across the stream that runs through the camp.

With the new school year just weeks away, parents in the camp are extremely concerned about the children missing school. Some are wondering if they should take their chances and go back to their village or try to find a place to settle that’s close to a school that would welcome the children. The children are anxious about the situation as well. “I like school,” Peshraw told me. He’s the one on the far left. “I want to be there on the first day. I don’t want to fall behind.”

The IRC is now speaking with local authorities on behalf of the displaced villagers to try and come up with a relocation plan that will enable the children to attend school and provide a safe place for the families to live until the violence subsides and they can safely return home.

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Georgia Crisis: A trip to Gori

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 28 August, 2008

IRC surveys homes destroyed by recent bombings in Gori, Georgia.
The IRC surveys homes destroyed by recent bombings in Ruisi, one of the villages surrounding the town of Gori, in Georgia. Photo: Eric James/The IRC
Eric James The IRC

Eric James The IRC

Eric James blogs from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he is coordinating International Rescue Committee programs for people uprooted by crisis in the region.

“We won’t go back until it’s safe,” is the refrain I hear every day from people who fled for their lives nearly three weeks ago amid intense fighting between Georgian, Russian and assorted other forces.  Roughly 160,000 people are newly uprooted in addition to a sizeable group of 250,000 displaced from conflicts dating back to the 1990s.  Those who fled the most recent crisis left with little more than the clothes on their backs.   In some communities, 95% of the population hit the road. The city of Gori, which had 50,000 residents, is one such place.  An hour west of the capital Tbilisi, we went there to see conditions this week and look at the possibility of helping people return and recover.

The main motor-route through Georgia, which connects the capital with the western part of the country, was busy with traffic on this day.  There were large commercial trucks, mostly from Turkey, along with a number of security and aid vehicles. We also saw some displaced people returning to towns and villages that no doubt escaped major damage.   On the horizon, a large black cloud rose from a train that had reportedly hit a landmine left by Russian forces. 

Immediately upon entering Gori you can see bombed out apartment blocks.  They are scorched black all over and turned inside out.  Streams of paper and other personal belongings litter the front grounds.   In the center of town, most buildings are intact, unlike the town centers just to the north in South Ossetia where there was heavy fighting.  Instead, it seems that a few bombs were dropped here to scare people and make a point.  Then, troops entered with their tracked vehicles, shooting buildings at random and ordering residents to leave.  Apparently the threat from landmines in Gori has been assessed as “low” because troops did not have much time to place them. Yet we were told that a woman who was out picking grapes and two children had been killed by landmines only the day before. 

Jason Snuggs/The IRC

Eric James (right) takes notes on what’s needed to help communities like this one in Gori rebuild. Photo: Jason Snuggs/The IRC

Gori and villages surrounding it are ever so slowly coming back to life.  In the center of town we visited the City Hall. There, a hundred or more people, ready to go home, were waiting on the steps for buses to nearby villages.  We talked to a few families who told us they are eager to restart their lives, but remain very worried about the future.  “Look, the Russians are still only 7 kilometers away,” said one man with alarm.

Our team traveled further west to Ruisi, a village of 6,000 people.  Already a dry place at this time of year, fields were burning and smoke was rising as we drove past scorched trees and underbrush.  In Ruisi, we met with the mayor and talked about the crisis over homemade cherry juice.  He told us that the fighting disrupted the farmers’ harvest.  He also said the farmers are afraid to go to their land, which is so close to the Russian troops.   On August 12th, the Russian military dropped several bombs in the area and then occupied Ruisi.  The mayor took us to see one of the houses that was destroyed. It was a direct hit which made it look like Hollywood had done it up as a set.  Part of the house was burnt and ripped open. The rest had been vaporized.  Houses across the street were also badly damaged.  We looked into one living room which had debris and dust everywhere.  All glass was shattered and the ceiling sagged with its panels ripped apart.  We met an elderly man and woman there. The man told us he was inside the house when the explosion happened.  I imaged that his ears must still be ringing.  The woman dressed in black, I suppose his wife, could only shake her head and motion to the ground and sky.  “Why did they do this?” she finally asked.

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Vote for two important refugee projects

Posted by The IRC on 28 August, 2008

American Express members project banner
The IRC is supporting two projects nominated for the American Express “Members Project,” a charitable giving contest.Please vote to get them into the top 25 where they’ll have a chance for a share of $2.5 million in funding from American Express.

Malaria Prevention for Refugees in Thailand
Providing bed nets and other simple and cost-effective malaria control activities to significantly reduce the incidence of malaria among Burmese refugees in Thailand.
Vote for this project >

Refugee Career Development
Providing career development activities to increase job readiness, job retention and earning potential for newly arrived refugees in the U.S.
Vote for this project >

The deadline is next Monday, September 1, so please click now and vote!

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