Guest Blogger: Jim Kimsey Speaks Candidly about RI’s History

By Jim Kimsey
As I look back over my experiences with Refugees International, it seems to me that Refugees International is more relevant today than ever. I was first introduced to Refugees International by Trish Malloch-Brown in 1995. In my first meeting with RI’s former president, Lionel Rosenblatt, he tried to impress me with RI’s work in Southeast Asia at the time. But when he mentioned Bosnia, it really got my attention. He had no way of knowing that my son had just been deployed to Bosnia. Soon after, I landed in Tuzla and got permission from the Battallion Commander to drive throughout the country for two weeks not long after the fall of Srebrenica. This was my first experience with RI.

I continued to travel to remote places in the world with Refugees International to assess refugee repatriation, land mine removal and other human rights concerns. On a few of my trips, I got to know one of RI’s most treasured advocates, Yvette Pierpaoli, who died on a mission to Albania ten years ago this April. I miss Yvette a lot – she was a tough little French woman! I really enjoyed travelling with Yvette, because she just knew so much. I didn’t have to do my homework around her; I just had to ask Yvette. She would always know the answer.  

I traveled to Mali with Yvette and Trish to assess the needs of Tuareg refugees – nomadic herders trying to rebuild their lives in Mali. We flew to Timbuktu and then to Kidal. Mali is really a cultural crossroads and it’s the most forgotten place we had ever been. After a lunch in Kidal, we discovered that someone had sabotaged our plane. We were miles from anywhere. We drove all night to a little town called Gao and flew out from there.

Little did I know when I had agreed to go on this mission with RI that we would end up fleeing from one town to another through the desert in the middle of the night, without any form of security. But we had to be there to see what was going on with the Tuareg people. Yvette talked to them about their needs for water and equipment, and after the mission, Refugees International mobilized donors to repair wells and schools for them.

A few years later in 2001, I went on an RI mission to Pakistan with RI board members including Queen Noor. In Pakistan, I met with President Musharraf, who gave me the best brief on Pakistan I had ever had. We then flew by helicopter to the refugee camps. We saw all of these refugees sleeping in tents, living hand to mouth, and just resigned to their fate. It was sad. And it’s awful to know that it’s continuing today with the fighting against the Taliban in the Swat valley. RI staff will be heading there in a few weeks – once again going where the action is.

I know that Refugees International will continue to make a difference in the lives of refugees thanks to the leadership of Ken Bacon. As the organization grows over the next thirty years, more staff will be able to go to more places that need them. But with enough resources from individuals, RI can continue to grow while still retaining its independence. Its staff members will continue to come back from the field, report on what they have seen, and raise enough Hell so that policies will change.

Mr. Jim Kimsey, founding CEO of America Online, was Chairman of RI’s Board of Directors from 1999 to 2004. His Chairmanship came at a crucial time, coming after the loss of RI staff and board members Yvette Pierpaoli and David and Penny McCall. Without his leadership, RI would be a very different organization today.