On the Frontlines of Humanitarian Crises Around the World: an Interview with Relief International

In June 1990, the worst natural disaster in Iranian history devastated northern Iran when an earthquake hit the region and caused widespread damage. In response to this earthquake, infamously named the Manjil–Rudbar earthquake, the Iranian Diaspora came to the aid of their native country through donations and fundraisers. Notably, a group of these responders were Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles who originally founded the humanitarian organization Relief International to aid the cause. Today, Relief International is one of the largest international humanitarian aid organizations in the world and helps communities in over 15 nations across three continents.

Credit: www.ri.org

Leading the organization since 2014 is Nancy Wilson. Ms. Wilson received her B.A. in Political Science and Economics from Stanford University and her M.B.A. from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Following 16 years in development and the private sector in Africa, Nancy served as a leader at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. Today, in addition to serving as the CEO of Relief International, Ms. Wilson continues her humanitarian work as the Treasurer of InterAction, the largest network of international non-governmental organizations. At Relief International, Ms. Wilson champions its mission of striving to turn fragile communities into resilient ones. By specifically targeting healthcare, education, economic opportunities, and water and sanitation, Relief International works within communities to foster hope and self-sufficiency. While the organization’s work began in Iran and has grown its reach to the entire world, their programs in Iran have grown of late. From providing aid at times of environmental fragility to ensuring Afghan refugee children are ready to succeed in school, Relief International has been uniquely essential in providing humanitarian aid to Iran’s most vulnerable, particularly those in rural areas.

One of Relief International’s most prominent programs in Iran is its involvement with Iran’s Afghan refugee population. Ms. Wilson recognizes this program as an ongoing venture to work with local officials and the community. “We started off in a very small way, just helping some of them get access to winter blankets and shoes and things they needed to survive the very cold winters because they are, in many cases, very poor families living in very meager housing. And then over time, as we built our relationships with local government officials and with the Afghan community itself, we’ve had some amazing programs that have worked on access to education and access to healthcare.” By working with a refugee population, Ms. Wilson highlights the need to make the community feel cared for and valued. Wilson explains that “we’ve been able to work with Afghan [refugees] to get properly registered in Iran by enrolling their children in school, which has protected them from deportation and to ensure they get access to healthcare.”

While Relief International’s work with Iran’s Afghan refugee community is transformative, their work with this population does not stop there. Ms. Wilson has helped the organization lead one of her favorite initiatives: The School Readiness Program. The program includes an eight-week summer program for children who have had no exposure to formal education. Ms. Wilson recognizes this program as completely changing opportunities for Afghan refugee communities in Iran: “If you take a kid who has never been to school, has never had any homeschooling of any sort, and drop them in a first-grade class, they will not succeed. They don’t know how to sit down, how to hold a pencil, how to get along and play with their classmates, and so on. The program works by teaching the children everything from navigating a classroom to brushing their hair to dressing themselves for school – ultimately setting them up to become a successful student when they venture into a classroom in the fall. The impacts are life-changing.”

Credit: www.ri.org

Ms. Wilson describes, “It’s been so heartwarming to see some of these kids suddenly able to go to school, have friends, and be learning. The parents are happier, the kids are happier, and it’s just delightful.” Ms. Wilson especially recognizes the importance of working with both Iranian locals and Afghan laborers to create outreach workers and bridge builders in the community. Ms. Wilson explains that the duality is important so that “when the kids come to the class there will be someone from the Afghan community and then also someone who is Iranian and knows what the classrooms are like and has been trained on how to do this kind of remedial and non-formal education to help prepare kids for formal education.”

What truly makes Relief International’s work unique, beyond helping to solve many of the world’s most dire dilemmas, is their commitment to building partnerships and alliances with local governments and communities. Ms. Wilson expands on this: “97% of our staff globally are local nationals. So we hire Iranians in Iran, we hire Turks in Turkey, we hire Jordanians in Jordan, and so on.” By working with and at the pleasure of nations and their citizens, Relief International has the unique ability to empower communities to uplift themselves.

However, Relief International faces unique hardships due to the inflation of Iran’s national currency. Inflation has led to sweeping worries across the country and has made life harder for many Iranians. Ms. Wilson explains that Relief International is not especially exempt from these problems. While her organization has not been importing humanitarian supplies until recently, it is still a troublesome bump in the road towards accessing basic human needs. Ms. Wilson explains, “If you’re helping to rebuild schools and you need cement and the cost of cement has gone up because of inflation and because of sanctions, then it’s just going to cost more to build that school and it’ll take a longer period of time.”

While Relief International is heavily involved in Iran, they hold an international presence as well. Darfur, Sudan is home to one of Ms. Wilson’s other favorite programs. Wilson explains that Relief International found that child malnutrition was a uniquely dire and grave problem facing the community, which led to its now elaborate initiative in Darfur. The Darfur program reflects what Relief International and Ms. Wilson have dubbed the RI Way: community involved, locally driven and planned, and built step-by-step. There is a push to build local capacities and help create self-sufficiency within communities based on their own needs, and through this, an entire program is customized from the ground up.

Relief International’s work is always changing to help meet the world’s demands. With the rapid rise of COVID-19 in Iran, Relief International has quickly responded by providing massive amounts of supplies to Iranian hospitals. It is sourcing locally and internationally to get essential masks, gowns, and test kits. RI is also spreading information about COVID-19 to Iran’s rural communities. Ultimately, Relief International’s pursuit to foster peace, quell conflicts and fragility, and enable access to basic human needs is essential in fostering a peaceful world. While there are a multitude of dilemmas, tragedies, and fragilities across the world, the work that Nancy Wilson leads at Relief International highlights the hope for a brighter future for all communities, from Iran to Darfur and everywhere in between.

If you are interested in learning more about Relief International or donating to the organization to further their work, visit their website at https://www.ri.org.

By Ariane Sharifi