Ground Troops

When Karen Johnson Elshazly joined the American Refugee Committee 20 years ago, she figured the group would soon put itself out of business
Craig Bares

"No, we've been around for about 20 years," the receptionist tells a caller. "Right. You can send a check. Yes. Just specify Kosovo in the memo." No sooner has the receiver hit the cradle than the phone rings again. The small lobby, and the mazelike offices behind it, are as busy as a politician's "war room" on Election Day. But this space on 24th and Nicollet is more of a reaction-to-the-war room: It serves as the headquarters for the American Refugee Committee, an international relief organization with a budget of $18 million and some 1,000 employees around the globe. Their latest engagement is in Kosovo, where 420,000 people are estimated to have been displaced in the past three weeks.

Karen Johnson Elshazly, ARC's director of international programs, is on the phone to Macedonia, where's it's now ten p.m. She's negotiating how to get money to the group's staffer in the country's capital, Skopje, since the cash he carried in from Minneapolis is down to $200. Wiring funds requires a local bank account, and to get a bank account ARC must register with the Macedonian government--a complex process that could take weeks. "I think we've found an organization that we could wire money through," Elshazly says. "But it's not all set up yet."

Elshazly, age 48, is an art teacher by training and in her early 20s worked in publishing. One day, she says, "I had this burning desire to have a job that meant something. I had just bought a house and a new car, so I got a grocery-store job to keep going while I was looking. I would go around to employment agencies, and I would give this speech, how I wanted a job that's meaningful to somebody.

"I got a call from an employment counselor--it had nothing to with his job, but he'd met a guy at a DFL fundraiser and thought of me. It was Stan Breen, our first director here at ARC. I met him the next day--a Thursday--and started on Friday. We had $700 in the bank. It was really hand-to-mouth, but a great opportunity." The year was 1979; the American Refugee Committee had been started a year earlier in Chicago by community leaders who were helping refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia settle in the United States. Its headquarters were moved to Minneapolis because Breen lived here.

"We had a big warehouse in Minneapolis where we gave out donated goods to arriving refugees," Elshazly recalls. "But families were telling us that their family members couldn't get over, that they were on medical hold [in a refugee camp] for a year. So we said maybe we should send a medical team to Thailand." Within a year she had put together three groups of doctors and nurses, and traveled along with one of them; since then, similar medical strike forces have traveled to Bosnia, Croatia, Guinea, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda.

Unlike many Americans--and some international aid groups--Elshazly and her colleagues did not come to the Kosovo crisis unprepared. They began casting a worried eye on the region years ago and spent part of an emergency fund to establish a one-person office there in 1998; last summer, the group's director flew to Macedonia to meet with government officials. At the time, says Elshazly, the country's leaders did not want to contemplate scenarios involving more than 60,000 refugees, all of whom were to be "absorbed" into private Macedonian homes. Since the beginning of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, some 120,000 people are thought to have entered Macedonia from Kosovo, and many have been placed in impromptu refugee camps set up by NATO forces. An estimated 300,000 more have crossed into Albania, where the committee is not active.

But those border camps, Elshazly explains, are not open to just any aid organization: "It can become political. The German troops set up a camp and turned it over to a German agency, the Turks did the same, so did the Greeks. Many [relief] groups ended up having little or no assignment."

ARC, she says, chose to stick with its original plan to serve an estimated 77,000 refugees doubled up with Macedonian families--in part because, even as other refugees are sent to more permanent facilities elsewhere in Europe, "these people are remaining there." Within the next few months, the group hopes to have a total of six medical teams operating in Macedonia.

Contrary to public perception--and the assumptions of doctors who have been calling ARC offering their services--those teams will not consist of white-coated volunteers flown in from the U.S. Whenever possible, Elshazly notes, ARC seeks to function as an extension of the local health care system; in some countries, such as Thailand, that has meant cooperating with local healers to set up traditional-medicine centers dispensing herbal remedies. In Macedonia it means supporting the country's network of clinics, or ambulantas.  

Elshazly says the first priority for ARC's nurses and doctors will be to identify and treat people with chronic conditions such as heart trouble, and to help immunize children to prevent outbreaks of diseases like measles. But they will also seek to address what may be the most common, and least obvious health problem among refugees: depression and other mental-health troubles. "Our [American] approach--seeking professional help from a stranger--doesn't work in other countries. We couldn't ask refugees about rape or talk about mental-health services with them. So we take an activity-based approach. In a refugee situation, it's usually women and children, so sometimes we put them to work to sort hygiene kits or do rug weaving. We just provide the venue, and then we see that contact within a group allows people to be heard, to be believed, not to be judged."


First, however, the aid workers must set up shop. In Kosovo, as in many of the regions where ARC has worked, the committee operates under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the world body, says UNHCR spokeswoman Robyn Groves, only writes the checks: "We fund work of groups like American Refugee Committee, but we leave it to them to negotiate whatever arrangements are appropriate. That's their job, and we wouldn't hire them if they weren't good at it."

In Macedonia, ARC's job so far has included locating a fax machine, a phone, and an apartment/office space featuring a fence (for security) and yard (for a parking lot). Vehicles are next--Toyotas, if possible: "Sometimes all our people do all day is drive, drive, drive," Elshazly explains. "And we need vehicles for security so that everyone has a way to evacuate. We've found that Toyotas are the most rugged--sorry, Jeep or Land Cruiser."

At this stage, says Elshazly, much of a relief group's work is unglamorous. "Often at the beginning, someone can spend every day, all day, going to government offices for meeting after meeting." No matter how plodding the progress, she says, ARC generally refuses to grease the skids: "We have so little money--it can't go toward bribes." Back in the mid-1990s, she recalls, her team drove an ambulance full of medical supplies to the Rwandan refugee camps near Goma in the former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). When the border guards demanded a payoff, "we walked back into Uganda in the pouring rain and stayed overnight there. By the next day we had gotten through to our people in Goma--a French-speaking guy who had the gift of gab and talked us through."

Foreign governments aren't the only ones throwing up bureaucratic hurdles. ARC often receives funding from the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance or the State Department. But the money is only available, Elshazly explains, once disaster has struck: Despite the group's advance work in Kosovo, "we couldn't get money until something happened."

Often, the funds also come with strings attached: "The government wants U.S. companies to benefit from our foreign assistance," Elshazly explains. Thus the committee has learned, she says, to stay away from State Department money when buying pharmaceuticals, since U.S. regulations and transatlantic shipping can drive up the cost as much as threefold; drugs are instead purchased from trusted suppliers in the Netherlands and Britain.

Private donations often have their own limitations. Almost $750,000 have poured into ARC's offices in the past three weeks, according to development director Greg Fields. But the donors want their money to be used specifically for Kosovo, not for a general fund. "Unrestricted money is the toughest to raise," says Elshazly. "And it's tougher because we're nonsectarian, so we don't have a congregation or an organization that gives us a firm financial base."

Despite those challenges, ARC has become one of the world's most respected refugee relief organizations. Barbara Smith, vice president for overseas operations for the New York-based International Rescue Committee, says ARC is "much smaller than many groups, and being small has certain advantages. You can go places that some larger groups might not be able to. But they also have had to build up a financial base, and they didn't build it from the power structure of Washington or New York. They're brave mavericks, and they've survived."


It's almost midnight in Macedonia, close to five p.m. on Nicollet Avenue. Elshazly has been interrupted three or four times in the last two hours, but she maintains an almost otherworldly calm. A co-worker's head pokes through her doorway; it's urgent, and she steps outside for an impromptu conference. The door closes, revealing cartoons and stickers, including one demanding "Impeach Nixon" and another one declaring "I (heart) Sudan."  

In ARC's early days, Elshazly explains later, she assumed that once the conflict in Indochina ended, the group would shut its doors: "We were always working to put ourselves out of a job." It took a few years to realize that refugees' lives didn't stop after they left the camps, and that they still needed help as they returned home to villages neglected or destroyed, missing family members and possessions. "In most situations, everything has changed: Plans to marry, have children, have careers, it's all been disrupted," explains Elshazly. "And if the economy is bad, it's hard to get anything going, so you have adults in their 30s and 40s living with their parents."

Now, says Elshazly, ARC enters a region assuming that "we're there for the long haul." The group remained active on the Thai-Cambodian border for 14 years. In Rwanda and Zaire, the committee began its work during the 1994 civil war that killed an estimated one million people and displaced hundreds of thousands, and staffers remain in the area to this day. In Bosnia, ARC operates 22 U.N.-funded resettlement offices designed to help refugees from the 1995-96 war return home.

In nearly all those long-term projects, ARC staffers have worked building homes and setting up drinking-water systems. But their biggest task, Elshazly says, is simply dispensing accurate information. "Often, when you hear of [ethnic or religious] stereotypes, it isn't the people, it's the politicians. The people don't have access to accurate information--they're being brainwashed. We inform so that people aren't manipulated."

Over time, says Elshazly, ARC has found clever ways to foster relations among former enemies. In Bosnia, they noticed that pharmacists of different ethnic backgrounds frequently operated across the street from each other: "So sometimes supplies would be placed in a way--all of one antibiotic in one place, all of another in the other--that made interaction absolutely necessary. They would have to work together to share the supplies. And working together is the first step toward getting along."

Perhaps the group's most innovative endeavor also came in Bosnia. "We got families of different ethnicities to work together on getting a playground built," Elshazly recalls. "Their kids drew what they wanted to see, and we got the schools involved. Now we're looking at bringing Bosnian engineers to [the Gaza Strip] to build playgrounds. It helps people find their own way to peace."

But peace takes time--and, says Elshazly, there's always another war, another project. "You know the instinct--don't you just want to go over there and scoop up those babies? It's not practical. But you do whatever you can."


A concert to benefit the American Refugee Committee and the Czech Republic's People in Need Foundation is scheduled for Sunday

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >