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Profile of American Refugee Committee
By Lynette Nyman
April 29, 1999
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The exodus of thousands of people from Kosovo has put refugee relief agencies into high gear. Most are working under the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N. agency that has the mandate to assist and protect the world's 13.2 million refugees.

The Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee is no exception. And while the ARC is active in the latest Balkan conflict, this relatively obscure agency has experience in earlier conflicts in the Balkans and around the world.

THE AMERICAN REFUGEE COMMITTEE RUNS ITS WORLDWIDE RELIEF PROGRAMS from a rather modest office with 18 staff members in south Minneapolis. Photographs of refugees and laminated maps of ARC program countries hang on the walls in the room where Karen Johnson Elshazly directs ARC's international programs. She's been with the agency since its beginning 20 years ago. Elshazly says ARC's first relief effort was for Hmong and Cambodian refugees who fled to Thailand. "After the first six months, there were very few people who realized they sat on that border for another 13 1/2 years. ARC was there until the end and followed them home," she says.

The ARC never planned to be in the refugee business. Its early health programs were to be short-lived. Once all the Southeast Asian refugees in Thailand resettled or returned to their homelands the agency would pack its bags and go home. But the late 1970s was the start of a refugee flood in the region. ARC's Southeast Asia Regional Director, Gary Dahl, is based in Bangkok, Thailand. Dahl says ARC is still working with Thai authorities to provide health services to refugees.

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To make a donation to the American Refugee Committee or read more about its work, visit the agency's web site.

There's about a 110,000 refugees in Thailand. Dahl says, "And so on the Thai-Burma border we work in refugee camps that are very remote. They're not in the jungle, but they're adjacent to jungles. We worked very much deep in the jungles prior to 1997."

Conflict around the world has meant broadening ARC's refugee relief to countries in Africa and Europe. Since the early 90s, the agency has run refugee relief programs in Croatia and Bosnia. Now, they're under contract with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to provide health services to 78,000 Kosovar refugees taken in by Macedonian families.

Elshazly's been busy working with her primary field coordinator who's in Macedonia getting the agency operational. ARC's contingency plans have been in place since last summer, as a kind of pre-planning for the refugee exodus now taking place. But it's taken weeks to work through the Macedonian bureaucracy. For example, the agency has to comply with Macedonian labor laws because ARC will hire and train local medical professionals to serve fairly healthy refugees.

The American Refugee Committee is small in the world of refugee relief. Most of its $18 million annual budget goes to its 1,000 field staff and volunteers assisting a million refugees and displaced people around the world. The agency has raised more than $1 million for Kosovar refugee relief in a month.