MOSCOW -- A small international aid organization based in Baltimore has assigned itself the seemingly overwhelming task of trying to create a viable economy for the thousands of refugees in the Russian Caucasus.
The war in Chechnya is only the latest in a series of upheavals throughout the region to drive people from their homes, and there is little prospect that the turmoil will end anytime soon. Many people -- dislodged by fighting in Georgia, Ingushetia and Ossetia -- have already lived as refugees for five years.
"We're trying to build a future out of this chaos," says Mary Hennigan, director in Russia for the International Orthodox Christian Charities. "We're bridging this gap between refugees and development."
The IOCC, which has launched a $200,000 pilot program on refugees financed by the World Council of Churches, hopes to build structures that could still be operating long after the world's attention has shifted away from Chechnya.
The idea is to create a new permanent society for the refugees where they are, rather than trying to get them back home again.
The IOCC has already worked for three years in Russia to foster local nonprofit organizations, yet it is still a newcomer to the international aid scene, and in the Caucasus it is still trying to find ways of working in what is proving to be a very different sort of environment.
Ms. Hennigan, 44, who calls herself "an Irish Catholic from Catonsville," has spent most of her career with the Peace Corps, CARE and Catholic Relief Services, in either Latin America or the Sudan.
"Hey, I hung out with the Nicaraguan revolutionaries," she says at her office across the street from Moscow's Danilovsky Monastery.
But isn't it a change, she's asked, to go from witnessing Latin American revolution to helping promote small business development in the former Soviet Union?
"Well, yes," she says, a stop in her voice and a half smile flickering across her face, "but, still, it's empowering people. And that's not so different, really."
Alex Rondos, who runs the IOCC from its main office, at the Rotunda on W. 40th St. in Baltimore, knew Ms. Hennigan from when they both worked at Catholic Relief Services. He got in touch with her a year ago after she had bought a rowhouse near Patterson Park.
"I did some consulting work for them at a conference down by the harbor," she says. "After that, they said, 'How about Russia?' I said, 'How about it?' And here I am."
Russia is far and away the strangest, most bewildering and most interesting place she has worked, she says. In Africa and Latin America, there is an established culture of international aid, which both donors and recipients are accustomed to. Here, it's brand new territory. Refugees in Russia are well-educated people who were living in an industrialized society.
"This is the First World turned upside down," Ms. Hennigan says. So the problems are different but -- she and her colleagues insist -- the potential for progress is greater.
War began in Chechnya just as the charity's U.S. government-sponsored program with local Russian organizations was about to end. So the IOCC, with the grant from the World Council of Churches, began to work in the Caucasus. Sava Zjalic, the 24-year-old son of a Serbian Orthodox priest in Minnesota, visited Ingushetia and Ossetia, neighboring republics that have been the scene of bitter ethnic fighting.
He found Ingush refugees, Ossetian refugees, refugees from South Ossetia (a part of Georgia), and new refugees from Chechnya. There are at least 100,000 of them, Mr. Zjalic estimates. They are living in boxcars, sleeping cars, schools, a stadium. They are overloading sewage systems and straining local economies that were already floundering.
The IOCC's aim is to find ways to deliver aid through local committees in a way that will help the economy. "We're looking for people with pizazz," says Peter Mikuliak, 50, another Baltimorean.
The IOCC is working with Russian churches as well as with Muslim leaders. It is hoping to create a partnership with a local foundation organized by Viktor Polyanichko, a man who wanted to bring peace to the region and a year ago was murdered for his efforts.
The Polyanichko Foundation can still operate in both Ingushetia and Ossetia, which virtually no other organization can, and has been vital in opening doors for the IOCC.
"We're trying not to go outside the system," says Ms. Hennigan, contrasting the IOCC's methods here to the way aid organizations often work elsewhere. "We want to be able to say we're going to continue to work with you."