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George Rupp has been president of the International Rescue Committee since July 2002. As the IRC’s chief executive officer, Dr. Rupp oversees the agency’s relief and rehabilitation operations in 25[…]

The refugee expert explains the IRC’s long history in the Congo and considers newly homeless Americans.

Question: What refugee crises are unknown in the West?

George Rupp: Well, there are many but I guess the IRC has a kind of deep connection to the one in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  We’ve been involved in the DRC since the mid-‘90s and are very concerned that this huge tragedy has been pretty much off the radar screen of the West.  One of the ways that we’ve been trying to bring it to the attention of the global community is by doing what we, in the business, called mortality surveys.  And this surveys have the macabre assignment of assessing excess mortality and we’ve done now, a series of 5 of these in conjunction with pre-reviewed scientific organizations, the center for disease control, the Burnet Institute in Australia, to name the 2 that we’ve worked with and what these surveys have shown is that in the periods since the last fighting broke out in the mid-‘90s… actually 1998, over 5 million people have died above what would be a high baseline for the Democratic Republic of Congo anyway, over 5 million people.  And most of the world is unaware that there’s a crisis going on in Congo.  Let me… 5 million people is a… is just an abstract number but if we think of… those of us who lived in New York, think of the way we reacted to the World Trade Center bombing, 5 million people is the equivalent of 9-11 everyday for over 5 years, every single day for over 5 years and you can just barely get to the 5.4 million who have died because of these series of fighting.  At the height of the fighting, there were 7 or 8 African countries involved.  There was a peace agreement that was forged and slowly the mortality rate has come down but there are still are enormous needs in Congo that are only beginning to be addressed and we’re proud of the fact that we have… now, our largest program anywhere in the world is in Congo, we’re working… we have a community driven reconstruction program, very much like the National Solidarity Program that we have in Afghanistan, we are working with the ministry of health in developing health clinics in the areas we were operating.  And we think that it is feasible to build infrastructure in a country that has been racked by terrible governance and violence now for far too long.


Question: Do modern Hoovervilles qualify as a refugee crisis?

George Rupp: Well, there’s no doubt that the lowest income Americans and even some working Americans who are now out of work are threatened with foreclosure of their homes or eviction of their rental properties and I think that that does require attention.  The International Rescue Committee sees it very much from the point of view or recent refugees that’s been resettled here and some of these refugees have been waiting for 10 years, they finally have a chance to get into the United States, they’re resettled because they have no prospect of returning home and really very few prospects to the places that they have fled to and they finally arrive here and then in a economic climate where it’s virtually impossible to find work.  The problem is that the United States refugee resettlement program only makes sense as a business plan if refugees are able to find work virtually immediately.  The US government provides support for best a couple of months and so the challenge for us in working with these refugees is to help them find work before they get evicted from their homes and that is a huge challenge and I don’t… I mean, it’s not different in kind from ones you describe of Americans who have no resources to fall back on but the refugees who are resettled here literally have no resources.  They have come with very little, if anything.  If they are able to… if their family re-unification case, as we say in the lingo of a resettlement agency, then it’s much… it’s a different situation, then they have access to family support and they can provide assistance until their able to find work.  But those so-called free cases who come and have no family that they can depend on desperately need to find work right away and these refugees will work very hard, they will do whatever that is required of them, often they have… they begin with the most minimal of jobs and very quickly work their way up.  The problem is right now, even the most minimal of positions are only very rarely available in the timeframe that they need to have them.