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Originally published Friday, February 14, 2014 at 12:04 PM

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Dan O’Neill gathers an army of compassion with Mercy Corps

He and the corps battle a world of hurt with guts and tender mercies.


Special to The Seattle Times

DAN O’NEILL TO BE HONORED

The World Affairs Council will honor Dan O’Neill with its 2014 World Citizen Award on March 4 at Town Hall in Seattle. The annual award recognizes an outstanding Washington state citizen who has contributed to solving a global problem, shown leadership in promoting international understanding in our community, and provided inspirational international service. The program begins at 7 p.m. For more information and tickets, see the World Affairs Council website: www.world-affairs.org.

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WASHINGTON — “There are some stories that can never be told. This is one of them.” So began a gut-wrenching report from Goma, Zaire, by correspondent Jim Wooten on ABC-TV’s “Nightline” in 1994. “It is all too much,” Wooten said, “a calamity of such epic proportions, so massive in size and scope that the truth of it is far beyond journalism’s reach.” Perhaps. Still, a question arises: Difficult as the Rwanda story is to tell, has network news done all it can to tell it?

IT HAS BEEN nearly 20 years since my chartered Cessna touched down in Goma, Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was among aid workers joining the frantic effort to assist Rwandan refugees in one of the worst human catastrophes I had ever witnessed. I had seen more than my share of wars, famines, refugee crises and other disasters since founding Mercy Corps in 1979, but the word through the aid grapevine was that this one rivaled them all.

The immense human tide of refugees had fled Rwanda’s genocidal civil war into Goma. I was making this trip to determine how Mercy Corps could help. What I saw in those few days was almost beyond description — a sea of humanity, naked, exhausted, sick, hungry and dying en masse. Twin specters, dysentery and cholera, had broken out in the sweltering, dusty land, littering corpses as far as the eye could see.

Making matters worse, water ran short, not only in the camp but in the overwhelmed city itself, where restive Hutu refugee soldiers roamed about with AK-47s.

The next day I faxed reports back to Mercy Corps headquarters, and a CBS reporter offered me his satellite phone for radio updates to Seattle and Portland stations. Armed groups were now hijacking vehicles, and most foreigners were looking for a way out.

I knew I would get out, but thousands of desperate refugees stood little chance of surviving on their own. I carried with me a drawing my daughter Casey had made of God watching over me and the refugee children. I felt a frightening sense of hopelessness thinking about all the children I had met who might not live to see another day.

I wondered, “How did I get here?”

IT WAS AUG. 7, 1994. I’d snagged the last seat on a U.N. flight that landed at Rwanda’s nearly deserted airport in the capital city of Kigali. A hot, stiff wind carried the distinctive stench of human bodies. I ran into Ken Issacs of Samaritan’s Purse, a U.S. aid organization, who gave me a lift as well as a bunk for the night. Their situation report was brief: no power, no phones, no commerce, no banking.

Over the next few days I met with officials and gathered a more complete picture: Dazed survivors wandering in search of food, shelter, medical help; bodies lying helter-skelter on blood-covered streets.

Perhaps most moving was my visit to the Central Kigali Hospital where, in nearly every room, I saw bullet holes and shell casings as well as signs that patients had been hacked to death in their beds. At the end of the compound, a nurse rushed up, holding a small, naked boy. “Please hold him. His mother is now dying in the next room.” Two-year-old Habimana, a machete wound on his face, was severely dehydrated and malnourished. I washed him, made a diaper from a gauze hospital pad, found some rehydration fluid, and held him for the longest time. I will never know what became of him, but at that moment he seemed a ray of hope in a sea of death.

It was a couple of years after that trip when the dreams started.

WHEN I THINK back to that question of how I ended up in Goma and Rwanda, it was not the founding of Mercy Corps. It was a war more than two decades earlier.

After graduating from the University of Washington in 1972, I launched my “search for the church,” a journey to discover the true roots of my faith. As a way to record my travels and learning, I vowed to keep a daily journal, which, with rare exceptions, I’ve kept to this day.

I set my sights on Jerusalem, where I planned to study, pray and recalibrate my spiritual compass. I arrived in the spring of 1973. Days later, while camped near the biblical Sea of Galilee, I celebrated my 25th birthday.

I volunteered at Kibbutz Ginosar, a cooperative farming community, where I worked in the orchards, studied Jewish and church history, learned Hebrew with a smattering of Arabic and swam often in that sparkling sea. I loved the simple, communal lifestyle.

Then on Oct. 6, 1973, the morning of the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, the earth shook as ambushing Syrian artillery and rockets pounded the nearby Golan.

Most of the men from the kibbutz set out for the battle front while I stayed behind to maintain the banana and grapefruit irrigation systems. I reeled to the din of war filling the air for weeks. Once, I watched an Israeli fighter jet detach its fuel tank while battling a Syrian MiG. The tank fell directly into the kibbutz preschool playground. I raced to the scene, where children, soaked in jet fuel, were screaming and crying. Incredibly, all survived, but we knew the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The U.S. Embassy urged all Americans to evacuate. As Syrians advanced, it became clear the legendary Israeli war machine was buckling.

But the tide began to turn when the U.S. rushed supplies and weapons into Israel. Though Israel prevailed, OPEC cut oil supplies to the West in retaliation for its backing of Israel.

On Oct. 29, day six of a shaky cease-fire, I hitched a ride to the Golan battlefield with a press team. There, the splayed bodies of Syrian soldiers lay scattered among burned-out tanks, wrecked trucks and downed aircraft.

After five months in the beautiful quiet of Galilee, reading about the three great monotheistic faiths that emerged from this region, the war had shattered my reverie. While Jews, Christians and Muslims all look to Abraham as their spiritual father, enmity, violence and destruction seem to have been their tragic heritage.

RETURNING HOME in September 1974, I stopped to visit friends in Los Angeles, who introduced me to my future wife, Cherry Boone. Over the next few years I worked for a communications company coordinating religious pilgrimages across Europe and the Middle East.

Between 1977 and 1979, I became increasingly concerned about the radical Khmer Rouge and its murderous rampage in Cambodia. Torrents of beleaguered refugees flooded across the border into Thailand. So horrific were the tales of torture and systematic killing, I told Cherry, “We have to do something.” Cherry’s parents, Pat and Shirley Boone, shared our concerns and offered to host a fundraising event in their Beverly Hills mansion. The “Thanksgiving Dinner for Cambodia” would draw celebrities, religious figures, media and humanitarian leaders.

I knew First Lady Rosalynn Carter was interested in Cambodia and had visited refugee camps in Thailand. On a whim, I called the White House and asked for her endorsement. To my utter amazement, she called me back.

When the day came, the Rev. Dr. Robert Maddox, special assistant to President Carter, gave a strong challenge from Mrs. Carter to get to work. The question arose, “Who will lead the task force?” All eyes turned my way. My heart pounding, I agreed to lead us and asked a core team to meet the next morning.

My journey toward making a difference had begun.

SOON, AID agencies were flooding me with offers of free resources. I accepted the help of the Rev. Art Beals, a friend and executive director of Seattle-based World Concern, who provided an office, part-time assistant and a chance to return to my Northwest roots. I called this new venture Save the Refugees Fund.

Nine days later I was in the White House with Rosalynn Carter, the first of numerous White House visits. I was raising money to support multiple humanitarian organizations working with Cambodian refugees in Thailand. My first tour of the refugee camps was in March 1980, at the Cambodian “settlements” of Sa Kaeo and Khao I Dang. There I witnessed vast seas of suffering, but it was always the children who moved me most.

As the months passed, a major crossroad loomed. The Save the Refugees mandate would end soon. I had learned a great deal about fundraising and emergency-relief strategies but longed to work more directly on the factors underlying hunger, extreme poverty and conflict. Not everyone thought I could succeed.

By 1981, my life course took some clear directions. On July 1, I filed incorporation papers for Mercy Corps International in Olympia. That same year, I joined the Roman Catholic Church, which had impressed me with its peace and social-justice teachings. I also became a father, after six years of doctors telling Cherry she could not conceive. Brittany would be the eldest of five. We were blessed.

“NETWORKING, DAN! It’s all about networking,” exclaimed Ellsworth Culver. Ells and I had met in 1980 at a humanitarian conference and hit it off. Formerly a vice president at World Vision and Food for the Hungry, Ells had seemingly seen it all. In 1982, I asked him to join Mercy Corps as our international director, and eventually he would assume my title as president while I continued as board chairman.

Our first international trip together was in 1982, to a refugee camp in Honduras. There we met Dr. Oscar “Tito” Giron, the pediatrician we had hired to help us run a new health program in the camp. Tito worked at great risk in the era of death squads and political assassinations. I asked him once why he persevered, and he answered simply, “Because of the children; they are our future.” Weeks later, a death squad tortured and killed Tito.

In June that year, while Ells and I were on a fact-finding mission in Lebanon, we were shocked to hear bombs exploding and Israeli jets roaring. This was the launch of Israel’s “Peace for Galilee” invasion of Lebanon. The bombing continued for days, and I remember visiting a hospital just as an air raid nearby killed 30 students on a school bus. Our study tours expanded to include Palestine (West Bank/Gaza), Jordan, Syria and Israel.

By 1984, Ells and I were debating whether to remain a boutique organization or expand and take on “the big stuff.” The question all but answered itself when later that year we landed a major USAID grant to provide emergency food aid during the infamous Ethiopian famine. We launched a cross-border program based in Khartoum, Sudan, orchestrating countless shipments of food through the desert.

In 1994 we were in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, the former Soviet Union, the Gulf War, the Balkans War, Kosovo and numerous other countries in crisis. As Ells turned his attention toward Asia, I again became president of Mercy Corps (a title I would hold for 10 more years). I had one proviso: I would need a CEO.

We hired Neal Keny-Guyer, and he proved to be the right leader for the next two decades. It was Neal who convinced us it was time for Mercy Corps to shift from being a faith-based to a nonsectarian organization — still embracing the moral imperative to help people but from under a bigger tent.

Today Mercy Corps works in more than 40 countries and has about 4,000 staff globally, nearly all of whom are from the countries where we work. From a Western-dominated, “truck and chuck” response to disasters, where food would literally be dumped off trucks into needy communities, today’s relief efforts are meticulously organized, and address a wide range of challenges, from complex emergencies to entrenched market failures.

FRIENDS OFTEN asked me how I handled the repeated exposure to the carnage of war and disaster. I explained that the emotional pain could be used as fuel to increase our determination to save and improve lives. If only it were that easy.

In 1997, the dreams began. Having my own family intensified my empathy for children, and often I saw in my sleep the faces of kids caught up in terrible situations. I began to experience insomnia, and when I did fall asleep, I frequently woke drenched in sweat.

One day in 2006, I remember standing up in my office, feeling dizzy and short of breath. Seemingly minutes later, I opened my eyes in a hospital emergency room. What I took to be a heart attack turned out to be a panic attack; the first of many.

Intermingled with the other symptoms, a cloud of depression slowly grew around me. When I was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2007, my mental state was such that I found it hard to imagine surviving each day. But after six months of therapy and my family’s support, I began to see a ray of light in the spring of 2008. Increasingly, PTSD is being discussed among first-responders, law enforcement and the military as well as the aid community. More effort will be needed to ensure front-line workers receive support.

The bad news continues: natural catastrophes, famine, political and financial upheaval, wars.

How do we keep hope alive? As Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, shares in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” we can choose how we respond to any situation. For me, facing my demons ultimately empowered me to let them go and recognize the redemptive turns in the journey I’m on. I periodically recall the words of Helen Keller, “The world is full of suffering. But it is also full of the overcoming of it.”



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