Diplomatic Pouch / May 7, 2015
By Larry Luxner
An Arab queen, a Hollywood movie star, a persecuted Muslim Rohingya activist from Burma and 17 ambassadors were among the 400 or so guests who gathered recently to celebrate the 36th anniversary of Washington-based Refugees International.
The gala event, held April 28 at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, raised more than $750,000 to help refugees in dozens of war-torn countries worldwide.
Headlining the extravaganza was master of ceremonies Matt Dillon and Jordan’s Queen Noor.
“Our advocacy is respected because of our independence,” Dillon told RI donors as they feasted on burrata salad, butter-poached tenderloin, chocolate crunch and lemon flan. “Refugees International does not accept United Nations or government funding. This allows the organization to be completely independent when it advocates on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people. Right now, we’re witnessing humanitarian needs on a scale not seen since World War II. Refugees International is needed now more than ever. With your support, we’ll continue this lifesaving work.”
RI President Michel Gabuadan said 51 million people — an amount equivalent to the combined populations of Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania — are now displaced by fighting around the world.
“With so many humanitarian needs, the international community has to work harder than ever to ensure that refugees and displaced persons receive the protection and assistance they’re entitled to,” said Gabaudan, a French physician who took over the helm of RI in September 2010.
Last year, he said, the organization led fact-finding missions to 10 countries to hear first-hand from refugees.
“In Iraq, we pushed policymakers to make the construction of shelters a priority. Our work also led the U.S. government to support the airlifting of urgently needed winterization material to Kurdistan. When we learned that lifesaving post-rape kits were not available to rape victims in the Central African Republic, we pushed for those kits to be sent to the country,” Gabaudan said.
“In Mexico, we worked with those displaced by ongoing assassinations, violence and criminal drug gangs. RI was the first and only U.S.-based organization working to expose this hidden but growing humanitarian crisis.”
Gabuadan added: “In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we shone a spotlight on the neglected southern province of Katanga. As a result, aid officials are sending additional assistance and UN peacekeepers. On the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, thousands displaced by fighting were living in absolutely deplorable conditions. RI’s advocacy led the UN and the Philippine government to reconsider some ill-conceived policies of relocation that would have further marginalized these populations.”
Ramón Gil Caceres, Spain’s ambassador to the United States and honorary chair of the event,’ said RI’s work is close to his heart.
“I spent many years of my life working in Africa, where sadly, violence and war plague so many countries and millions of people are uprooted,” said Caceres, who before coming to Washington was Madrid’s envoy to Sudan. While in Khartoum, he witnessed first-hand the birth of an independent South Sudan following years of bloodshed.
“During those days, many South Sudanese decided it was better for them to leave the north and abandon everything they had to go back to the south and start anew,” he said. “Projects were built, and families full of dreams went to the south with the hope of a new life. So it is with a heavy heart now that I watch South Sudanese turning against each other in a civil war that has forced more than one million people from their homes.” In a situation like this, said Caceres, the work of organizations like RI is essential. As an
“As an ambassador, I know that diplomatic efforts to end conflicts must be accompanied by a robust humanitarian response, so that when peace is finally reached, the people are ready and able to rebuild their lives,” he said.
Jordan’s Queen Noor, who has served on RI’s board for the last 14 years, then presented the organization’s Congressional Leadership Award to Sen. Chris Coons, whom she called “a most deserving champion supporter of human rights.”
“As conflicts throughout the world force an increasing number of people from their homes, he has shown unwavering support,” the queen said of the Delaware lawmaker. “He used his leadership role at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to shine a light on under-reported areas such as the Central African Republic. Sen. Coons believes in building partnerships throughout the African continent to promote good governance, food security and economic security.”
In accepting the award, Coons, a 51-year-old Democrat from Wilmington, said his first exposure to refugees was a teenager, when his parents’ church adopted a South Vietnamese family that had fled to the United States via Thailand.
“I met them in middle school and was stunned by their personal story,” said Coons, adding that the experience made a lifelong impression on him.
“From the decades-old Somali refugee camps in Kenya to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, the need is greater than it’s ever been. The U.S. government leads the world in humanitarian assistance and I’m proud of that,” he said. “However, we must do more.”
Coons wasn’t the only dignitary honored at the RI dinner.
Sue Morton was presented with the Visionary Leadership Award for founding RI — whose first office was on a houseboat in the Potomac River.
“May this award remind you, Sue, that your faithful passion in launching RI will not be forgotten,” said presenter Tom Getman, noting that Morton could not be at the dinner to personally receive her prize. “This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Cambodian genocide. We will not forget this historic event. Thank you for all your good works, and for helping RI continue saving refugees around the world.”
In addition, prominent journalist and author Maureen Orth received the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award for bringing education to some of Colombia’s poorest communities. The award — named after two RI officials who died in a 1999 car accident in Albania — was presented by Queen Noor.
“Maureen Orth’s involvement traces back to the 1960s. While serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, she helped to build a school in Medellín, where my own Syrian family has roots dating back to 1904,” said the queen. “In 2005, she founded two non-profit organizations. Her schools now have 3,200 students and puts particular emphasis on technology, with intensive programs in the English language and leadership.”
Orth, a Vanity Fair correspondent who has also worked for the New York Times, Vogue, Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone, said less than 10 percent of all corporate donations to NGOs go to Latin America, and of that, only 3 percent goes to education.
“I hope we can reverse that,” Orth said. “Thankfully, RI has consistently done exceptional work advocating for and gaining much-needed funds for displaced people and victims of humanitarian crises. My own decision to join the Peace Corps at age 20 and go to a place I’d never heard of gave me the best education I ever got.”
Orth’s project eventually became the first bilingual public school in Colombia.
“When we started, teachers didn’t even know how to use email,” she said — but thanks to corporate donations from Motorola, Intel and other Fortune 500 companies, “our little village became the first WiFi-enabled village in Colombia, and the first to have entire families on Facebook. Today, my greatest thrill in life is to see the smiles on all these beautiful children — some as young as 7 — as they pick up their new computers.”
The evening’s final prize, the Richard C. Holbrooke Leadership Award, went to Rohingya activist Tun Khin, who was born in Burma but now lives in London. It was presented by Kati Marton, widow of the late U.S. diplomat for whom the prize is named.
“Myanmar passed a law in 2002 excluding Rohingyas as a legitimate minority population and made Tun Khin and almost a million of his fellow Rohingyas an illegimate community unable to claim Myanmar citizenship,” said Marton. “I am myself a refugee, and Richard was a child of refugees. The brutal treatment of the Rohingyas is a terrible stain on Myanmar, a country we hear so much good news about. Many of us were deluded into thinking that all was well in Myanmar. Well, it’s a long way from becoming a humane and just society. Tun Khin’s presence tonight is a reminder to all of us that we can’t call a victory in Myanmar and leave the scene. We have to stay engaged until there are no more people living in these concentration camps.”
Khin said that in the past three years, about 100,000 Rohingyas — about 100,000 people — have fled the country following violent attacks against Rohingya villages.
“I do not exist. That’s what the Burmese government says. They claim the ethnic Rohingya, around a million people, have never existed,” Khin stated. “The government calls us Bengalis, but we are not from Bangladesh. We are Rohingyas from Burma.”
He added: “Since the reforms began, things have gotten much worse. The government has deliberately impoverished us by denying us the right to work and the ability to move freely, even from one village to another. In the past 40 years, they have used a series of laws and policies to take away our rights. We have lost everything from our citizenship, the right to marry, the right to have children, and most recently, the right to vote. And the policies are working.”
Khin, insisting that Burmese officials enjoy “complete impunity,” called for a United Nations commission of inquiry into recent violence against the Rohingya people.
“By coming here today, you have shown you care about our situation. I’m very grateful to you for taking the time to listen to what I have to say,” he said. “But we need you to do more. Take action now before the next massacre. If you do not, who else will help us? It is you, the people here today, who are our hope.”