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Art meets humanitarian aid

International Medical Corps president speaks at ‘Women Under the Radar’ series


Nancy Aossey, the CEO of International Medical Corps, holds an infant in Haiti following the earthquake that killed more than 280,000 people last year. Courtesy photo

President & CEO of International Medical Corps Nancy A. Aossey spoke Thursday in Ketchum about an increasing awareness of the need for providing humanitarian assistance to developing nations during times of crisis.

Aossey was invited to speak in Sun Valley by photographer Stephanie Freid-Perenchio as part of an ongoing series of lectures by "Women Under the Radar."

Aossey has 25 years of experience in supplying emergency medical relief, global health support and long-term recovery plans to troubled and unstable countries around the world.

"The media has had a tremendous impact on how we view the world," Aossey said to a group of women at the Stephanie Freid-Perenchio studio.

Freid-Perenchio's "Voiceless Child" photography exhibition runs at the studio, 680 E. Sun Valley Road in Ketchum, through Aug. 30.

"In the 1980s, it was a big decision for us to buy a fax machine. I cannot imagine how technology will change our role in the next five years," she said.

Aossey was publicly lauded this year by First Lady Michelle Obama at a commencement address for Aossey's alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa.

Obama praised Aossey for raising more than $1 billion over the past 25 years for the the global non-profit organization to provide humanitarian assistance and medical training in 65 countries around the world, including Somalia, Haiti, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Nancy has earned awards that have put her in the company of presidents and generals, Nobel Prize recipients and Oscar winners," Obama said.

The International Medical Corps was founded 25 years ago by Dr. Robert Simon, a Los Angeles-based surgeon. Simon traveled to Soviet-controlled Afghanistan in 1979 to provide medical aid to children. He soon found that the need for medical services far outstripped his resources.

Aossey explained that the Soviets had been intentionally maiming Afghan children with "toy bombs" because they knew tribal people would then pick up everything they owned and head east toward Pakistan for medical assistance, clearing the area of resistance fighters.

"As a result there were four million refugees amassed on the border of Peshawar, Pakistan," she said.

The International Medical Corps has 4,000 people, many of whom are village doctors, nurses and midwives, worldwide who can mobilize in response to disasters.

The organization has responded to numerous natural and man-made humanitarian disasters since the 1980s, including tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, and genocides in Rwanda and the countries.

Aossey said humanitarian aid workers and journalists had long been left out as targets during political conflicts, until former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Miloševic took power during the breakup of his country, which led to genocidal military campaigns.

"Milosevic began shooting at us and at journalists. We became fair game. This was a sea change," she said.

Aossey said the question she is most often asked by potential donors to her organization is: "Why can't these countries help themselves?"

"Most of the time these countries are receiving the impacts of bad leadership. And the people in these countries do not have the ability to change their leadership," she said.

Aossey said the main reason that some leaders, such as Angola's former leader Jonas Savimbi, seek power is to control natural resources.

"Whether it is oil, diamonds or minerals, these are the real reasons they are in power. Savimbi was thug and a killer," said Aossey.

"He couldn't have cared less if children were dying of infectious diseases," she added.

Aossey said the International Medical Corps works in partnership with numerous other relief organizations, businesses and governments to bring aid to those in need.

"We plug in where we can. We are a huge collaborator," she said.

Aossey said aid workers never know when a crisis will end, but pointed to several instances of individuals taking charge of their lives and communities in order to bring about lasting change under difficult circumstances.

"It takes time, patience and a long-run view," she said.

Most recently the International Medical Corps partnered with the German humanitarian aid agency, Wings of Help, to airlift humanitarian relief supplies from Germany to the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, where 12.4 million people are in need of emergency assistance, reported Reuters News Agency.

Those supplies include about 90 tons of vital medicines, tents and nutrient-dense foods.

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