On any given day, Dr. George Rupp, president of the New York City-based International Rescue Committee, may find himself in a remote Afghan village, lobbying for policy changes in Washington, D.C., or visiting his group's Idaho office. The IRC is a nongovernmental organization that provides humanitarian relief and rehabilitation operations in 25 countries and offers refugee resettlement in the United States. Rupp is a theologian, author, former university president and humanitarian activist. And, technically, an ordained Presbyterian minister.
How did you get involved with the IRC?
I had been president of Columbia [University]. I was 58, and it was a good time for a transition. And so, to the shock of the trustees, I announced I was going to leave my position. I loved higher education and scholarly work and writing books and all those things, but I had always been kind of restless and an activist, and I was looking for something that was a little closer to the ground. I had studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka in 1969, 1970, and was very intrigued with Third World issues, and I had a daughter who had lived five or six years in Africa. When I got to know more about the IRC, I thought it would give me a chance to be involved in a whole range of issues that I found provocative. My parents were both immigrants, and so that may well have helped, too.
What's your typical day like?
In some ways it's not so different from being a university president. My job is to identify problems and figure out what the right group of people is to work solutions to problems and get that under way. I have a plethora of problems. There's no day that there's not something that's blowing up.
You've done a lot of traveling since you became president, across the world and now to Boise.
I've been to Afghanistan, Sudan, the Congo, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Pakistan— all really interesting places—and then also visiting resettlement offices in this country, the youngest of which is here in Boise. It's been three years, and it's a terrific operation. It's small, but Leslye Boban [regional resettlement director] has done a fabulous job. I guess what I'm most impressed with is the energetic volunteering. We had a lunch with representatives from the governor's office, the mayor's office, the school system, police, a couple of health clinics. These people were all really engaged in trying to figure out how to make sure that it worked having refugees resettled in Boise.
So how does a person get involved with IRC?
We have about a dozen paid staff in this office, and we have over 180 volunteers. It's really viral, so people hear about it from others. There are three other resettlement agencies in Boise, and we're the only one that's not, as they say, "faith-based." And so I think a lot of our volunteers are ones that are more comfortable in an organization that's not faith-based, even though many of the volunteers themselves are church people and others. So they come from a whole cross-section of Boise citizenship.
That's an issue in your recent book, Globalization Challenged, right? Finding harmony between Western secularism and religion.
I do talk about that in there. It's interesting. I think that a non-faith-based organization like the IRC, that nonetheless is not antagonistic to religion, can provide a kind of forum where people from a whole variety of traditions can get together in a way that is harder if the organization is of one particular religion. So we have secular humanists who come here, but we also have Mormons and we have a lot of Muslim resettlees. Some of the refugees who have already been resettled pitch in. It's across the board.
What are your hopes for humanitarian policy with the next presidential administration?
We've already been working very hard with both campaigns to restructure the whole resettlement program. The resettlement program that the State Department runs is grotesquely underfunded. There's been no increase in the last 10 years, and the populations we're resettling have greater needs. The Iraqi refugees, for example, often they're very well-educated and had middle class jobs before they fled Iraq, but they're deeply traumatized. Almost all of them come from families where close relatives have been killed or women have been raped, and it is not as straightforward for them to be reintegrated into a stable community, and yet there's been very little recognition for those increased demands.
Tell me about some of your work abroad.
One of my favorite programs of all our programs around the world is in Afghanistan. And it is run 100 percent by Afghans. Our staff work to establish village councils, and those village councils identify what their highest priority development needs are, and then we work to get those resources to them. The projects usually are a school or a health clinic or a series of water taps, but in one case I can remember, they built a viaduct, a huge connector that connected two villages over what was a dry area in the dry season but then it was impassable during the rainy season. Just the most gorgeous stonework. The villagers all did the work themselves. The money we provided was just to buy the supplies.
How do you decide which countries to focus on?
We have emergency response teams, so [in] any conflict-generated emergency we will almost certainly be present because that's what we do. We don't ordinarily do natural disasters. By and large our specialty is conflict-generated emergencies. We always have a handful of countries. We're probably going to go into South Africa to work with Zimbabwean refugees. There are huge numbers of Zimbabweans; the country is in free fall. We've just gone into Georgia. The Russians really destroyed not just rural areas, but urban areas, so there's a lot to be done there.
The IRC is looking for donations of winter clothes, furniture, bicycles, food, or volunteers for English tutoring. To get involved, contact Keziah Sullivan at 208- 344-1792.