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Aiding Refugees is a Full-Time Job For International Rescue Committee CEO Reynold Levy

Aired August 20, 2000 - 7:00 a.m. ET



UNIDENTIFIED AID WORKER: If you look at each of these skulls, each head has a machete cut or a blow of a blunt instrument like a hammer. And this one was shot with an arrow, was found in the head.

BEVERLY SCHUCH, HOST (voice-over): Rwanda, 1994, more than a million people died in tribal warfare between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Two million refugees ran for their lives, some traveling more than 5,000 miles to find safe ground. Tens of thousands of children were separated from their families. They suffered starvation and fear of repeated attacks. For many of them, their only hope for survival hinged on this man, an obscure professor teaching at a famous university a hemisphere away.

REYNOLD LEVY, PRESIDENT & CEO, INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE: Corporate philanthropy will give away about, gave away about $10 billion last year in cash. That's money that we can count.

SCHUCH: Reynold Levy, a Columbia professor, heads up the International Rescue Committee, an organization founded almost 65 years ago by Albert Einstein, a refugee himself. Levy's small band of dedicated workers is now helping to trace and reunite Rwandan children with their families while offering medical services, food and shelter.

LEVY: There are many sources of inspiration for this work. One of them is the Talmud and the Talmud says that to save one life it is as if you have saved the world. So whenever we get to feel overwhelmed, we focus on the individual lives we save and we save them every day.

SCHUCH: It isn't hard to imagine feeling overwhelmed when you consider there are more than 30 million refugees in the world right now and the IRC is helping to save them one life at a time. Levy spends much of his time traveling the globe to dangerous locales like the Ivory Coast in Africa.

LEVY: The IRC has proudly said it's going to try to be helpful by bringing some school furniture and some school supplies that you can use.

SCHUCH: But with an annual budget of $150 million, Levy's most important job is fund raising. The IRC receives more than $100 million from the United Nations and various governments with the rest coming from individual and corporate donations.

(on camera): You know, I just wonder, if you don't feel overwhelmed by all the death and destruction, I think sometimes American people do or people do because it's like what difference is $50 going to make, what can I do? I mean it's just -- how much of your dollars go to actually helping the people?

LEVY: Ninety-three percent of our -- the funds raised go to refugees directly. Our overhead is extraordinarily low and we're very, very proud of it.

SCHUCH (voice-over): Ever since he was a little boy growing up in Brooklyn, Levy has been surrounded by refugees. His own grandmother fled her homeland to start a new life in the United States.

(on camera): Tell me about Anna Hecht (ph) and her role in what you do.

LEVY: Anna Hecht was my grandmother, who came to this country fleeing the Nazis with three daughters, one of whom was my mother. She never wrote English. She raised three daughters as a baker and was very devoted to the United States and was a very, very proud citizen. And I was very proud of the contributions she made to her family and to the country.

SCHUCH (voice-over): Reynold Levy has grown from a childhood playing stick ball in the streets of Brooklyn to saving lives in the world's worst war torn cities.

LEVY: And the IRC has a lot of work to do.

SCHUCH: Reynold Levy, president and CEO of the IRC, is next on PINNACLE.




SCHUCH: Where do you think the worst places in the world are today?

LEVY: Well, from the point of view of sheer death rates, the Great Lakes region of Africa, and particularly the eastern part of the Congo, is a very, very tough place to be. They need to establish peace in that area in order to create a climate that will allow access to humanitarian assistance for a population that is dying at extraordinary rates. We estimate well over two million deaths in the last 22 months in the eastern part of Congo.

SCHUCH: And it's dangerous for you to go in and to send your people in there?

LEVY: You may be looking at some gray and white hair that wasn't there on my head a couple of years ago. The dangers are so great that security and literally the security of our people, physical security of IRC people is something that's on my mind every single day.

SCHUCH (voice-over): Danger and crisis are the daily bread and butter for Reynold Levy, the fearless leader of the world's largest volunteer refugee agency. During the Kosovo crisis last year, Levy ordered air drops of food for thousands of ethnic Albanians despite Pentagon warnings that the relief planes could be shot down by Yugoslav forces.

LEVY: We were very concerned about the Kosovars who did not make it across the border. We called those who made it across the border, as dramatic as those pictures were of suffering, we referred to those who came into Macedonia and Albania as the lucky ones and we were very worried about the Kosovars who were thrown out of their villages and who moved up into the mountains and who were quickly without provisions and without food and with the cooperation of the U.S. government, we did take on a mission to fly food in over Kosovo and one that was very dangerous.

SCHUCH (on camera): In a job like this, you know, where they're still fighting over there, how do you measure success?

LEVY: The first measure of success is that a million people who fled Kosovo are now back home. And the...

SCHUCH: That fled to go here or to go to other countries?

LEVY: Who fled to go to Albania and Macedonia are now free to go back to their home in Kosovo and to build their country.

SCHUCH: Safely, though?

LEVY: Well, I just returned from Pristina and from Mitrovica and from areas north and south in Kosovo. It's relatively secure. I mean parents can have their children go to school by and large without a concern for their safety.

SCHUCH (voice-over): For nearly 65 years, the International Rescue Committee has been saving the lives of the obscure and the famous, including artists Mark Chagall (ph) and Salvadore Dali, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Intel Chairman Andy Grove. The organization was founded by Albert Einstein, among other refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.

LEVY: He really inspired it. He was very concerned about the remnant of intellectuals in Europe who were faced with death at the hands of the Nazis.

SCHUCH: Today, the IRC operates in more than 30 countries and resettles refugees in 19 U.S. cities.

(on camera): And it's shameful to say, but a lot of these places that you go into, people couldn't even tell you where they are, much less pronounce them. How difficult is it getting support and donations for places like this? LEVY: These places, as you said, are very far from where wealthy people live and very far from what's in their consciousness and one has to bring it to them. But I have found since I've been at the IRC a very generous response whenever we have done so.

SCHUCH (voice-over): Each mission begins with careful planning between Levy and his crisis managers. First, field agents are sent to the troubled region to survey the land and form liaisons between local governments, donors and volunteers. The agents often risk their own lives in an effort to save others. The IRC relies upon its staff members to act as their own security guards and they never carry guns.

LEVY: The toughest phone call I ever had to place was to the parents of a young man named Peter Colenzo (ph), who worked for us from the United Kingdom in Liberia. And he, together with four or five other humanitarian workers, was kidnapped and held captive for some three days under very ambiguous circumstances. And to have to speak to his parents and let them know of his kidnapping and what we were trying to do to have him freed and to discuss the uncertainties that he -- and the risks that he was being exposed to, was a really tough call.

SCHUCH: Once in the country, the IRC hires nationals who speak the language, people familiar with how to access supplies and materials, as well as dealing with local customs and officials. Still, the job is fraught with danger.

(on camera): Have you had losses?

LEVY: We have had losses of national staff, no losses of expatriate staff, of American or European staff. But we have lost some national staff, for example, to mines, to unexploded munitions.

SCHUCH (voice-over): The IRC works to provide basic necessities and helps refugees rebuild the road to self-sufficiency.

(on camera): At some point do you have to say well, we have to get out of here now? We have to go somewhere else?

LEVY: The IRC does not operate alone. We operate with lots of sister non-government organizations and we operate with the support of governments. So when we're in a place, we perform direct service. But we also very much try to influence government policies and influence the practices of our colleagues and to cooperatively and collaboratively address issues that no one of us, no one institution and no one government could handle by themselves.

SCHUCH (voice-over): Six years later, the IRC is still finding homes for the Rwandan orphans. But Levy is determined to see this crisis through.

LEVY: Our litany is food to the hungry and water to the parched and shelter to the homeless and training to the unemployed. We provide the wherewithal for very, very brave and courageous refugees to make a new life for themselves.

SCHUCH: When PINNACLE returns, how the turbulent '60s led Reynold to a life of public service and to his wife.




SCHUCH (voice-over): Ronald Levy was born in a politically unsettled time. W.W.II was just ending and the cold war was brewing. The family found security in their modest apartment on a beach in Brooklyn, New York.

(on camera): Let's go back to your childhood because it sounds like it's a Neil Simon play. What was it like growing up in Brighton Beach?

LEVY: My memories are very, very positive and pleasant, completely secure, a park across the street and on the other side of the street a boardwalk and a beach where as kids we would just play ball all day.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

SCHUCH: Do you remember a moment, an image, though, that captured your imagination?

LEVY: It was probably Martin Luther King's letter from jail. He wrote about the quest for freedom and if there's a consistent theme in my professional work, it's helping those who aspire to be free, to be free to form their own associations, to be free to earn their own living and to be free from political oppression.

SCHUCH (voice-over): The spirit of public service captured Levy early in his life. In 1962, during his senior year at Lincoln High School, he was elected president of the student body. Besides arranging the usual senior social events, Levy inspired students to volunteer in local nursing homes and senior centers.

His public service agenda earned him appearances with New York City's Mayor Robert Wagner.

(on camera): Most people don't even think about giving back until you've reached middle age pretty much. You've been giving back in your professional life your entire life. So you must have had some pretty strong inspiration when you were pretty young.

LEVY: You know, I was born in 1945. If I had been born in 1935 and it would be quite unlikely that I could go to an Ivy League college as an American born Jew because there were quotas and very strict quotas on Jewish entry into elite universities. So I'm just a generation away from a time even in American life when opportunities for Jews were limited.

It was always part of my upbringing to look around me and see those that could use a hand and use some assistance. And so during the course of my life I have been very privileged to be in a position to try to be helpful.

SCHUCH (voice-over): Levy spent the next 10 years studying government and foreign affairs. Armed with a PH.D. from the University of Virginia, Levy went right to work helping the public. By 1977, he was named executive director of New York City's 92nd Street Y, which he transformed into a well spring of culture, entertainment and sports.

(on camera): It's not like, you know, your typical Ys across the country. How would you explain it to somebody outside of New York?

LEVY: I used to say that the 92nd Street Y was the only Jewish institution ever to receive a Challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and it was the only multi-function institution ever to receive a Challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and it had the only diving board immediately above a concert hall ever to receive a Challenge grant from both institutions.

I described it essentially as a dazzling variety of educational, social, cultural and artistic services.

SCHUCH (voice-over): In 1984, levy switched to the private sector, helping change the face of corporate giving by creating the AT&T Foundation. During his decade long tenure, AT&T gave away more than a billion dollars to the performing arts and to the needy.

(on camera): What attracted you to that job?

LEVY: The first challenge was to demonstrate that company philanthropy could meaningfully help non-profit institutions.

SCHUCH: What is the responsibility of corporations to give money away, public companies who have shareholders to report to? What's their responsibility?

LEVY: Well, those contributions, it has been demonstrated, make a real impact on business success and that was the second challenge I was trying to demonstrate, that there's an intimate relationship between corporate philanthropy and business success. Some people refer to corporate philanthropy as charity. It's one out of every seven white collar workers in this country. It's 16 million jobs. It's $700 billion of annual expenditure. It's 11 percent of all the real estate value in the country. Some charity.

This is a huge and growing part of American life and smart companies see them as markets and as opportunities to exert influence and to learn.

SCHUCH (voice-over): When PINNACLE returns, find out how this humanitarian businessman copes with unimaginable human suffering.

(on camera): What touched you so profoundly that it changed you forever?

LEVY: Well, to hold a child in your arms who is separated by thousands of miles from his or her parents or who is unlikely ever, ever to see their parents and who is truly alone.




SCHUCH (voice-over): Just 10 miles from the center of Manhattan, Reynold Levy lives in this decidedly un-city like area of the Bronx better known as Riverdale.

(on camera): For a city kid, you seem to have made the transition to bucolic country pretty well.

LEVY: It took a while. When we first came here, I said to my wife, does this mean there's a Home Depot in my future? Does this mean a mulcher? Is there a mulcher in my future? Because I was an apartment kid.

SCHUCH (voice-over): In 1996, Levy left AT&T to write about philanthropic strategies for corporations. His book, "Give and Take: A Candid Account of Corporate Philanthropy," makes the point that companies gained competitive advantage by giving back to society. Levy met his second wife Elizabeth Cooke in the late '70s. New York City was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and it was Levy's job to help save programs for the poor. It was Elizabeth's job to help save Reynold from himself.

LEVY: The first time I met her I described to her everything I had prepared for this lobbying in Albany. I had gotten the right people, we'd made the right contributions to the right assemblymen and state senators to commit to going. I'd written the right scripts. I'd ordered the buses. Everything was ready and now she could just execute it for me and she smiled and she thought that was all very well. And she asked me, well, when are the buses leaving? And I told her a week from next Monday, whereupon she advised me that there aren't any assemblymen or senators in Albany on Monday. They don't get there till Tuesday. They work Tuesday through Thursday, essentially, and use Monday to travel.

SCHUCH: Today, Elizabeth is executive director of The Parks Council.

ELIZABETH COOKE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE PARKS COUNCIL: There's no doubt that there's a common thread between us in what our interests are and our work and I'm sure it's what attracted us to each other initially. We talked to each other a great deal, you know, by phone during the day and then in the evening and on weekends and our common interests have always been around the condition of the society we're living in, about government policy.

SCHUCH: Reynold and Elizabeth have two children, Emily and Justin, from previous marriages. Tennis is their common bond. When traveling on missions, Levy eases the tension with an occasional match. LEVY: In Bukavu (ph), Congo, I played a tennis match with this fellow here, John Kleats (ph). He was the regional director of the Great Lakes region of Africa and he lost to his boss. It was a very close match. There was a rematch which isn't part of the official record. So this is all that there is and the president came through.

SCHUCH: Levy runs the IRC with some impressive help. His 80 member board meets annually and includes such heavy hitters as Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel and Richard Holbrooke, as well as corporate donors like Intel, Microsoft, Chase Manhattan and more than 250 other companies.

LEVY: The IRC has since November of 1996 established itself in Bukavu in eastern Congo. It is there that civil war has continued on and off ever since we established ourselves, 1.7 million deaths, 2,500 deaths per day due to the war. It is as if the populations of the City of Houston or of Vienna, Austria disappeared from the face of the earth week by week, month by month, ever since August 1998.

SCHUCH: Reynold Levy is a humanitarian but equally important, he is an astute and at times tough businessman. Dealing with the consequences of man's inhumanity to man on a daily basis is his job. But in order to be effective, Levy has to find a way to distance himself from the horror of human suffering.

LEVY: I don't think I feel much differently than a surgeon does. You're associated with an institution that literally saves hundreds of lives every day. Its people working close to refugees on the ground are intervening in some of the harshest circumstances and most forbidding environments.

Saving that one life is reason enough to be alive and I'm just delighted to be in a position and be part of an institution that literally, literally saves tens of thousands of lives every year.




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