The Serbian noose was tightening around Sarajevo, forcing one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities back to the Middle Ages. Fred Cuny, the legendary humanitarian disaster specialist, offered a strategic use of the rest of the Soros funds that would help the struggling city, and Refugees International suggested the fund be used for his projects. In January 1993, I returned to Sarajevo with Fred, whose massive frame made him seem to take up half the space in the UN armored personnel carrier bringing us in.
Time flies-- usually.
Already, it is now 17 years since Bosnia became engulfed in war, almost as long as the gap between the two World Wars.
But time definitely did not fly if you were a Bosnian during the war.
When I got home from my visit to south Sudan, a few friends asked how my trip was to Darfur. This is a common error as most people don’t understand that Darfur is only one region of Sudan. With all the much-needed attention devoted to solving the crisis in Darfur, the challenges facing millions of south Sudanese who survived 21 years of war have taken a back seat. Yet, we will not see peace in all of Sudan – including Darfur – if war returns to south Sudan.
I find it kind of shocking that there is more attention to the poker tournaments I participate in than in the tragedy ongoing in Darfur. Since 2003, nearly 2.5 million people have been forced out of their homes, living in makeshift huts in large, sprawling camps in this western region of Sudan. Up to 400,000 people have been killed according to some estimates.
A few years ago, Don Cheadle and I were having lunch and started talking about the crisis in Darfur. He had just released his book "Not on Our Watch" and was actively campaigning for more attention and meaningful action on Darfur. I felt that what was happening in Darfur was so horrible, and just said, "Nobody knows what’s going on in this part of the world. We should do a poker event for them." At the time I thought it would raise around $25,000 or $50,000. This small idea turned into Ante Up for Africa -- a hugely successful celebrity-studded series of charity poker events that has raised $2.5 million since July 2007.
One of my favorite statements is by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
That statement captures how Refugees International was founded 30 years ago, and why RI has such impact since.
In 1979, Sue Morton, the wife of a Pepsico executive in Tokyo, went to Thailand to witness the plight of refugees escaping the genocide in Cambodia. While there, she watched in horror as Thai troops forced 40,000 Cambodians back across the border.
“Overburdened by refugees and with resettlement to third countries down to a trickle, Thailand had closed its borders to refugees,” she wrote 15 years later. “The living skeletons of men, women and children who had escaped were forced back into Cambodia. Soon Malaysia followed suit, as Vietnamese boat people were pushed back out to sea, many never to see land again. The world no longer cared.”