A call to action

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December 21, 2009 // UPDATED 10:27 am - December 21, 2009
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

The American Refugee Committee is rolling out new ways for people to assist in its humanitarian work around the world

Daniel Wordsworth, the new president and CEO of the American Refugee Committee, is soft spoken, but he mentioned he’d like to “shout something from the rooftops” if he had the chance.

It’s a message about the seemingly hopeless state of refugees around the globe — people the Loring Park-based organization has been serving for three decades.

If he had a bullhorn, Wordsworth would say this: “The problems are not as insurmountable as they look — solutions are not as complex as they seem. The hard thing really is for people to act.”

He’s got an ambitious agenda for 2010 that includes rolling out a new advocacy program designed to give people more opportunities to get involved in the organization’s humanitarian efforts.

“My observation is that most people in the United States really actually do want to do something,” Wordsworth said. “There is no lack of reluctance on their part, but I think most people find it hard to do a couple of things. They find it hard to make a personal connection to what’s going on. They find it very difficult to see where they fit into the solution. … I think people are looking to find ways to meaningfully connect for themselves.”  

To get the ball rolling on the advocacy program, the organization plans to recruit 20 people from its extensive list of contacts (it has more than 5,000 in its database) to tackle violence against women in Africa.

The advocates would then be tasked with talking with workers in Africa via Skype to learn about their day-to-day activities. They’d also become familiar with the organization’s Through Our Eyes project, which helps refugees make videos about life in the camps. Many have made short films about the oppression of women.

Susan Hikma participated in the project in Southern Sudan and had this description of the experience in the organization’s 2008 annual report: “I’m really happy because I had eight days of training on how to communicate and pass a message of change. I know that with all the training I got, I’m going to give the message to my people and change. I have seen that I can do something to change my people and change me. Because this violence is everywhere. This is what I know.”

To date, the organization has helped refugees create more than 100 videos.

For their initial work, the 20 advocates will have about a month to get up to speed on the work of the organization to fight violence against women. Then they will each be expected to get 20 of their friends together to form a committee and investigate ways to do something about the crisis.

Wordsworth gave a few examples of how the committees could have an impact. If they raised $1,500, they could help pay for a safe house for seven women fleeing from violence, and $10,000 raised would help pay for a lawyer to run a legal clinic at a refugee camp.

He said he’s anticipating a number of unique and innovative ideas to spark from the advocates’ committees.

“They’ll have their X factor,” he said. “That group of 20 will think of something we’ve never thought of.”

In addition to tackling violence against women in Africa, the organization plans to enlist advocates to brainstorm ways to promote safe motherhood, create employment opportunities through microfinance and provide more legal assistance to refugees.

The goal is to get all of the committees up and running within the next 12 months.

Might sound daunting, but Wordsworth is optimistic.

He’s been at the helm of the American Refugee Committee since May. Before taking on the post he worked for the Christian Children’s Fund, serving as vice president of its Asian region.

Wordsworth has been working to improve the lives of refugees for 15 years, and long felt called to help people in poverty.

“When I started in this work, I wanted to work with street kids and drug addicts,” he said. “People would say this is a very tough problem, but the starting point for me was to just open the door to a house and take people in. From there, 20 years later, I’m sitting here. You learn things and you get better at what you do and expand the number of people you reach.”

Over the years, he’s made three observations: People have a genuine desire to help; it can be “shockingly straightforward” to make a difference; and finally, the world is much smaller than most people realize.

“Again, my observation is that if you really decide you want to do something, you’ll find a way,” he said.

The American Refugee Committee is helping people in Afghanistan, Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Pakistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, southern Sudan and Uganda.

The organization has more than 100 volunteers with a wide variety of talents and backgrounds.

Holly Robbins, an employment attorney based Downtown, has been involved with the organization for nearly a decade. She serves on the board, has done pro bono legal work and human resources training for staff.

She also had the opportunity to travel to Guinea in Africa to meet with refugees. She said she was “humbled by the generosity of the people.”

“I’m really proud of being able to work with [the committee] and lend my skills in ways that are helpful to the organization,” she said. “I’ve been able to meet people from all over the world.”

Hahn Chang, a senior at Maple Grove High School, works at the committee’s office eight hours a week for school credit. His mentor is Wordsworth.

His ninth grade social studies teacher initially piqued his interest in Africa. In class, he spent a lot of time talking to students about the crisis in Darfur.

Last spring he helped organize a 6K fun run around Rice Lake in Maple Grove. More than 240 people participated and the event raised more than $8,000 for the organization. He’s got another one planned for May.

“One of the biggest things I was inspired by is that the organization is really making sure that people are not dependent on aid — it’s really about making sure their quality of life improves,” he said.

Wordsworth hopes more people will follow the lead of volunteers like Robbins and Chang.

“It’s sort of a beautifully human characteristic that we don’t shut ourselves down from these things,” he said. “We find it hard to manage them mentally so we have to compartmentalize things. The minute you approach that doorway, people are happy to open it up.”

American Refugee Committee by the numbers

> People served in 2008: 2.5 million

> Total staff in 2009: 1,618

> Percentage of staff who are refugees or local people: 94 percent

Reach Sarah McKenzie at smckenzie@mnpubs.com.