Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

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

Back to school for refugee kids in Atlanta

Posted by Wynne Boelt on 27 August, 2008

IRC refugee school supplies drive in Atlanta IRC photo
IRC staff and volunteers in Atlanta stuffed backpacks with donated school supplies for refugee kids. Photos: Ashton Williams, Andrea Jones/The IRC
Going back to school is always an adjustment, especially for refugee children recently resettled in the United States. To help them start the school year, the IRC’s Atlanta resettlement office collected donated school supplies, stuffing 175 backpacks full of notebooks, pencils, glue, rulers and other essentials.

“Volunteers played a key role in gathering supplies, stuffing the bags and distributing them, as well as in getting community support for the project,” Ellen Beattie, the IRC resettlement director in Atlanta, says.

Ellen says the IRC’s goal is to give one backpack to every school-aged refugee child resettled by the IRC in Atlanta. This year the IRC expects to resettle some 250 refugee children in Atlanta.

Andrea Jones, IRC volunteer coordinator, helped to organize the supply drive and says it was great seeing some of the refugee children so happy with their new backpacks.

“To give a kid this full backpack, they open it up and some of the stuff, the glue they don’t really even know how to use it sometimes and it’s just so much fun to see kids excited about their education,” she told WAGA-TV, which reported on the supply drive (video).

How to get involved: There are various ways you can help the IRC help refugees adjust to new lives in 24 U.S. cities. Learn more here. 


Posted in children, education, howtohelp, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The siege of Sarajevo and beyond [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 26 August, 2008

A wounded Bosnian refugee boy  IRC Photo
A wounded Bosnian refugee boy  Photo: The IRC
As we observe our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from our rich history each month.

Sarajevo. Winter 1993. The Bosnian capital is under siege by Serbian nationalist forces. Artillery pieces entrenched in the surrounding hills lob shells and mortars at hospitals, markets, and schools. From rooftops, snipers mow down civilians as they fill water buckets or line up for bread. All roads leading into the city are blocked, as are shipments of food and medicine. Water, electricity, and heat are cut off.In their offices in the heart of the beleaguered city, a small group of IRC aid workers hit upon an innovative plan: a seed distribution program to help the increasingly desperate Sarajevans grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards or apartment terraces. It is the first step in what will become the IRC’s most heroic relief effort—an effort that will continue for 14 years and involve lifesaving work throughout the Balkans.As one former IRC staff member in Sarajevo said at the time, “We were seeing an industrialized country descend into chaos. It was an environment for which none of us had any previous experience.”

In response, the IRC improvised and adopted unorthodox methods.

In order to cope with the logistics of moving tons of aid into battered Sarajevo, for example, the IRC contracted with local factories to produce as many supplies as possible inside the city. The IRC also provided seed grain to farmers to reduce the number of food convoys. In a city gripped by panic and starvation, this economic activity helped people to withstand some of the miseries and also helped them to resist fleeing their homes.

One project was deemed so risky few considered it feasible. Braving withering sniper fire, IRC engineers drew water from the Miljacka River, which winds through the center of Sarajevo, and piped it to safer areas of the city as drinking water. They hid the pumps and filter systems in tunnels to protect them from shelling. By August 1994, the daring project—which was funded by financier-philanthropist George Soros and enlisted the leadership of legendary disaster-relief engineer Fred Cuny—had succeeded in restoring water to Sarajevans’ taps. No longer would they have to dodge sniper fire while queuing up at dangerous central water taps.

Meanwhile, the engineers painstakingly repaired Sarajevo’s bombed out electrical and heating systems, projects that took two years to complete. Over 600 tons of supplies were transported over treacherous Mount Igman on a narrow, winding dirt track controlled by Serbian gunmen.

By the time the 1995 peace accords ended the siege of Sarajevo, the IRC had saved thousands of lives and brought food, water and light to the city’s populace.

We then shifted our focus to the victims of war and to destroyed communities in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans.

In 1998, when clashes between advancing Serbian forces and rebels in Kosovo ignited the last of the Balkan wars, the IRC launched one of its largest aid programs, providing extensive humanitarian aid and repairing thousands of homes, electrical facilities, roads, hospitals and schools. The IRC distributed food and medicine to tens of thousands of people in Croatia, lent assistance to Serbian refugees fleeing Croatia and Bosnia, and established emergency aid and reconstruction programs in Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro

As peace gradually returned to the Balkans, the IRC began closing its programs, having assisted millions displaced by conflict. The IRC’s program in Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo closed in 2004, followed by Croatia in 2005. The Bosnia program closed in April 2006.

The IRC’s years in the Balkans were without a doubt some of the finest in our history. 

And that story has continued in the United States.  Since 1993, the IRC has resettled 21,804 refugees from the Balkans here. Some have joined us as IRC staff members at our headquarters in New York and in many of our resettlement offices across the country. These cherished colleagues remind us every day of the IRC’s legacy in and from the Balkans.

Postscript: Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who oversaw the killing of thousands of people by sniping and shelling in the siege of Sarajevo and later directed the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 men and boys, was arrested last month on war crimes charges after 13 years as a fugitive.

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What makes a Ugandan warrior lay down his gun?

Posted by Joanne Offer on 25 August, 2008

Karamoja peace committee IRC photo
Women from an IRC peace committee sing a song about how raiding hurts communities and how peace can unite them instead.   Photo: Joanne Offer/The IRC
Joanne Offer is in Uganda, where the International Rescue Committee is working with Ugandan communities affected by conflict as well as refugees from neighboring Sudan.

This piece was originally posted on Reuters AlertNet on 18 August. You can read all of Joanne’s posts from Uganda here.

What makes a warrior lay down his gun? I got the intriguing chance to find out when I met the Nadunget peace committee – a group of 40 or so men and women, many of whom were once involved in or affected by armed raids, but who now promote peace across Moroto district in the Karamoja region of northern Uganda.

The committee members go to nearby villages to sing peace songs, play out dramas and use their own experiences to explain why fighting benefits no one. Women who’ve been widowed by raiding talk of the emotional and financial hardship of losing their loved ones. Children who’ve been orphaned tell others that life is precious. It’s heartbreaking stuff to hear.

It’s quite a culture shift for many of the committee, which is one of nine formed with the help of aid agency International Rescue Committee (IRC) to maintain peace in a region formerly troubled with violent raids to steal cattle.

As one man told me: “I was only young when I started going on raids. I was in Primary 2 when my father told me to stop going to school. He said there was another school in the bush where I could get a real education. So I started raiding.

“Between 50 to 100 of us used to go on a raid together. We were indestructible. Me, I used a big gun and it felt great. I was ready to shoot and I had a lot of bullets.”

So what made the difference? How does a former warrior end up on an IRC peace committee? It’s clear that it wasn’t an overnight change for these men, but they slowly realised that raiding was destroying their communities.

“Guns have finished many of our people,” says one man, “we’ve all lost someone in the raids.”

Another committee member tells me: “In the past, people raided because of poverty, and it’s still a huge problem in our area. But I tell them that we should look at our neighbours. They’ve done better than us because businesses have gone there. Businesses won’t come here because they are scared of raids.”

Big-scale raids are now more unusual in Karamoja, although there’s still a threat from smaller groups of thieves. These thieves are often young men, struggling to survive in a region hit by drought and with few opportunities to make a living. But maybe the committees can help to persuade them that the gun is not the answer.

Posted in Africa, peace | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Swimming lessons for refugee kids / Phoenix

Posted by Wynne Boelt on 22 August, 2008

Phoenix swim class IRC photo
Burundian refugee children in Phoenix take a summer water safety class. Photo: The IRC
Since 2007 the International Rescue Committee has partnered with the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training (FAST) to teach refugees about water safety.  236 swimmers, including two Bhutanese refugees resettled by the IRC in Phoenix, set a new Guinness World Record for most participants to swim one pool length each in one hour on August 10 as part of the Kids Saving Kids Relay, which raised funds and awareness for FAST.

Joe Zemaitis, FAST founder and president, answers questions about FAST, its partnership with the IRC’s Phoenix refugee resettlement office, and breaking the world record:

Why did you start FAST?

The idea came from one of my swimmers, Braxton Bilbrey, who at age eight became the youngest swimmer to complete the swim in San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz. Braxton’s goal was to help stop kids from dying in pools in the community. FAST developed soon after.

Swim safety class in Phoenix. IRC photo

Swim safety class in Phoenix. IRC photo

How did you become involved with the IRC’s resettlement office in Phoenix?

Lori Lause, the mother of a swimmer I coach brought us the idea of outreaching to the refugee community in Phoenix. We learned that most refugee families live in apartments with swimming pools. Refugee children, however, have had an extremely limited exposure to pools and open water. With regard to drowning prevention it is tremendously important to teach these children, who don’t know how to swim and are in particularly risky situations, about water safety. 

Do you plan to continue to work with IRC teaching refugee children?

Absolutely, we have had such an outpouring of community support for this project in particular. The Phoenix-based Hubbard Swim School has given us 100% support, by offering a location for the class to take place, as well as suits for the kids courtesy of Bob Hubbard. It has been remarkably rewarding for the kids, and it works both ways. It is fun for me to see our competitive swimmers’ growth through teaching this program and so many refugees grow through learning and building confidence on both ends. 

What was the Kids Saving Kids Relay?

The Kids Saving Kids Relay was an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for most participants to swim one length each in one hour. The record was previously held by a group from England with 204 participants. We intended to top that record by one, with 205 participants, but we were extremely pleased with our success of 236 swimmers in one hour, two of which were refugees resettled by the IRC.

Why did you want to break the world record?

We saw a great opportunity to raise awareness because August is Drowning Impact Awareness Month in Phoenix, and with the Olympic Games happening, it seemed like a perfect fit. But the world record here is really just Phase One.  In 2009, on May 1 and 2, FAST will host another Guinness World Record attempt for most people swimming one length in a 24 hour relay. This event will require the participation of over 3200 people.  As a truly community-wide effort we will raise a great deal of awareness for drowning prevention.

Posted in children, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Missing persons / North Ossetia

Posted by Peter Biro on 21 August, 2008

South Ossetian refugees looking at lists of missing persons IRC photo
Photo: Thomas Hill/The IRC
The IRC’s Caucasus director Thomas Hill took this picture of South Ossetian refugees looking at lists of missing persons outside a shelter in neighbouring North Ossetia. On 12 August, Hill traveled with a group of colleagues from the North Caucasus aid community to assess refugee needs in Alagir, an industrial town west of the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz. Alagir is one of the first entry points for the many thousands of refugees who have poured over the border from the embattled Georgian enclave.

How You Can Help: Donate now to help the IRC assist victims of the crisis in the Georgia region and other displaced people around the world.

Posted in Caucasus, howtohelp, refugees, war | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »