Kathleen M. Pike, PhD


Last night was the annual gala for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). It was a grand but bittersweet celebration. I was inspired by refugees who shared their stories of forging on and creating new lives with IRC support. I was also humbled by the enormity of the humanitarian crises around the world. Over 65 million people are displaced by conflict and disaster today. This is the largest number of refugees and internally displaced persons since World War II.

International Rescue Committee (IRC)

As the brainchild of Albert Einstein, who recognized the need to assist German Jews suffering under Hitler, IRC has been on a mission since its founding to respond to humanitarian crises around the world “to help people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future.”

The disasters are public news. “Syrian …”  “Rohingya …”  Beneath the broadcast headlines are the personal, private stories of millions whose names we will never know. I am honored to serve as an IRC Board member and proud that IRC’s work reaches disaster survivors at the level of their personal stories. IRC has five priorities (how convenient for me) – all aligned with supporting and restoring mental health along the journey to long-term recovery.

1. Health. IRC sets up and supports programs that ensure access to clean water and sanitation, and access to health systems. IRC places special focus on treating and protecting children from leading causes of death in such contexts – from famine to cholera. Focus on women and girls’ health and access to reproductive health services is central to IRC programming. And IRC recognizes the essential inclusion of mental health and emotional support services to help people find comfort and safety as they journey on a path they never imagined. Here’s the story of Rohingya refugees who are being displaced by the thousands in Myanmar.

2. Safety. By definition, disasters threaten personal safety. IRC helps those who are recovering from conflict and disaster seek protection from harm, build safer communities, and understand their human rights. IRC works tirelessly to stop intimate partner violence and to protect children from physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, neglect or exploitation – all of which are greater risks when trapped in volatile and fragile states in crisis. Read Ahmed’s story here.

3. Education. Last year, IRC provided schooling and educational opportunities for 1.5 million children, trained 33,000 educators, and supported 11,000 schools. During and after crises, people are often forced to make short-term decisions to survive – such as pulling children out of school to work – that will have long-term negative consequences. So as not to lose an entire generation of kids from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and northern Iraq, David Miliband, President and CEO of the IRC announced last night that IRC and Sesame Workshop are finalists in the MacArthur 100&Change Grant. Together, IRC “with Sesame Street will help transform children’s lives by making sure that their social-emotional needs are met so they are able to receive an education, contribute to their community and succeed as adults,” said David Miliband. Learn more here.

4. Empowerment for Women and Children. IRC is especially committed to gender equality and breaking down barriers for women and girls. Working with local and national governments as well as non-state actors, IRC works to ensure that policies and practices serve all people equally. Meet fourteen-year-old Mariama. She’s been forced to flee her home in the Central African Republic because armed groups are threatening her village.

5. Economic Wellbeing. During and after crises, individual basic survival needs are threatened. IRC supports individuals in crisis areas to ensure that they have what they need to survive – including food, water, shelter and basic household items – without falling into debt or resorting to desperate measures. IRC provides cash assistance – through debit card accounts with no strings attached, where appropriate – so that people can buy what they need themselves, which benefits the local economy. IRC also assists people to identify realistic, achievable career paths that have the potential to offer a living wage. Here is the story of Muhammed and his family as they recover after losing everything.

Needless to say, the presence of IRC in these five areas provides tangible benefits for millions of displaced individuals around the world. But even further, what can’t be summarized in words is IRC’s most powerful contribution to these vulnerable communities: hope. It has been said in multiple ancient texts that to save one life is as if to save the world. With IRC saving lives day in and day out, I remain hopeful for the mentally strong world being built before us. 

If you would like to learn more about the IRC or help with the rescue of dignity and humanity, click here.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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