Over the past year, three Americans who served as leaders of humanitarian causes have succumbed to cancer. They shared an outspoken passion for the cause of aiding refugees and other victims of oppression, war and poverty, but they also shared something rarer: the ability to translate concern into action.
The Statesman and Legislator: Senator Edward Kennedy's interest in refugee issues dates from the 1970s, and I can personally attest to that. Nearly 30 years ago, as a student at Georgetown University in Washington, I walked to the State Department to hear him speak about Vietnamese refugees. I found the Senator's remarks and the energy he brought to the issue remarkable. He became the author and driving force behind the Refugee Act of 1980, which moved the country from an ad-hoc program to bring refugees to the U.S. to a formal partnership between government and private organizations with annual goals for refugee admissions His Senate office regularly produced staff members who would become foreign policy leaders in their own right. A year ago, I finally got the chance to meet Senator Kennedy in person. In a small room off the Senate chamber, the Senator met with a group from the International Rescue Committee, led by his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith. He had squeezed the meeting in between giving an interview to a Boston reporter, receiving a delegation of Irish officials, and votes on the Senate floor. He interrupted our rehearsed points on the Iraqi refugee crisis -- he already knew all about it -- and refocused the conversation on what should be done next. He had already overseen the passage of legislation that gave sanctuary in the United States to Iraqis whose lives were threatened because they had helped Americans. Now, he pledged both staff resources and his personal energies to continue to help refugees in need.
The Spokesman: Kenneth Bacon had been a long time Wall Street Journal reporter before accepting the post of chief spokesman at the Defense Department in 1994. In that role, he became known to a wider public as the unflappable bow-tie-wearing man behind the podium at the Pentagon, explaining U.S. involvement in wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. But it was in his third career -- as the president of Refugees International, a group that reports on humanitarian crises and advocates on behalf of refugees -- that Ken may have rendered his greatest service. He spoke out on behalf of the vulnerable, displaced and dispossessed all over the world, and put in many hours traveling to Sudan, Iraq, Cambodia and the Thailand-Burma border. While his colleagues at Refugees International may have written the essential reports analyzing crises, Ken was the one who translated their recommendations into plain English and got them published in newspaper op-ed pages and on television, radio, and the internet. He was a genius at finding ways to get often neglected stories covered by the media. He did all this with a clear voice that was always rational and never shrill, using the same reasonable, informed tone whether talking to refugees in camps, policy wonks in Washington or world leaders at conference tables.
The Advocate: Julia Taft died a year ago, in August 2008. She was born Julia Vadala, the daughter of an army doctor and his wife, and married into the famous Taft family of Ohio. She and her husband, Will, moved comfortably in Washington foreign policy circles and took turns serving in government while raising a family. Julia Taft directed the Interagency Task Force on Indochina Refugees for President Ford, led the government's response to foreign disasters in the Reagan Administration and served as an assistant secretary covering refugee policy in the Clinton Administration. In between these tours in the government, Taft led Interaction, the coalition of relief and development aid agencies, and spearheaded reforms at the UN. I worked alongside her in the Clinton Administration and afterwards and learned a great deal about the importance of speaking out. I adored her fearless approach to seemingly intractable problems and her ability to convince decision-makers (often all men) to cooperate. In times of crisis, whether in Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa, or the Balkans, Julia became the hub through which information flowed, decisions got made and government assets, from food to military cargo planes, moved. She was approachable and could always be found outside after a meeting taking a cigarette break and ready to mentor younger staff. She would be up to speed on emerging crises and several steps ahead of the rest of us. Her greatest talent may have been spurring the reluctant to take action. In the last weeks of her life, she was working the phones from her sickbed challenging us to do more.
With the passing of these three heroes, the community of activists, aid workers and donors who care about refugees and relief work has been diminished. In reflecting on their lives we see that they had several things in common: a passion for and mastery of the issues; a strong desire to help the most vulnerable; the ability to work in a bipartisan fashion and inspire platoons of younger colleagues; and voices that could make themselves heard. Their examples challenge all of us to do what we can to carry on their important work.
Anne C. Richard is a Vice President at the International Rescue Committee, www.theIRC.org.