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Small relief agency takes big risks


In 1995, a small humanitarian aid group from Baltimore called International Orthodox Christian Charities had big plans - to build a self-sustaining economy for refugees in the war-torn region around Chechnya.

Two years later, the group did a painful about-face. Reeling from the kidnapping of two staff members who were held captive months before being released, it pulled out of the region altogether, acknowledging the danger that other foreign agencies already had fled.

Today, IOCC officials say they have grown stronger and smarter from that crisis, evolving from a fledgling group of concerned leaders in Orthodox Christian churches to a $35 million operation with programs in 11 countries.

But the organization, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, has not stopped taking risks. IOCC has embarked on a new U.S.-backed program to create jobs and build an economy for thousands of Palestinians cut off from work in Israel by a 16-month conflict with Israel.

As the youngest of the four major international relief agencies based in the Baltimore area, IOCC, the official agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, is the fastest-growing - and perhaps the least known. Several international relief experts who were contacted for this article had never heard of it.

The more established relief agencies based here - Lutheran World Relief, Catholic Relief Services and World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals - started their work amid the devastation of World War II.

Looking for a city for its headquarters, IOCC chose Baltimore in part because Catholic Relief Services was here - and because it could be close to agencies in Washington that fund it.

Kenneth F. Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services, has been an adviser to IOCC. The Orthodox group has been successful in creating a base for its relief work within a diverse group of churches whose members don't always see eye to eye, he said.

"They built a constituency around this vision," Hackett said. "To bring the Greeks together with the Russians, with the Serbs -that's not easy."

But IOCC's organizers have a much grander dream - of one day competing more directly with the likes of Hackett's $373 million operation. There are plans to add social services such as food banks and English classes in this country to the group's expanding work overseas.

"My dream and vision is that we will someday be raising $10 million [a year] from the private sector, and that we will be doing $100 million of work throughout the world," said Charles R. Ajalat, a Los Angeles lawyer who helped found IOCC and will retire as its board chairman in the next few weeks.

"I'm hoping to see that whole domestic ministry flower, where it might become a third or a half of what we do."

That vision has a way to go before it becomes reality. Although IOCC has gotten the attention and support of the leadership of the Orthodox churches, it has captured relatively few Orthodox donors. Of about 6 million Orthodox Christians in the United States, only 10,000 give to IOCC, according to the agency's executive director and chief executive officer, Constantine "Dean" Triantafilou.

The organization has a low-profile office in Towson, with a staff of 15. Most of its employees - about 130 - work overseas.

"We've done a lot of work, and not a lot of people know about it," Triantafilou said.

The group began its work with a baptism by fire. Soon after IOCC's founding in March 1992, war erupted in Bosnia-Herzegovina, creating more than 1 million refugees. Local Orthodox leaders asked the group to provide immediate relief, and IOCC became one of the few humanitarian organizations working with the Serbs. With a philosophy of helping people in need of all faiths, it worked on other sides of the conflict as well.

"It was sort of jumping into the deep end and learning to swim," said Alex Rondos, IOCC's former executive director and now an adviser to the Greek foreign minister. Helping the Serbs brought "a sense of being isolated, if not somewhat stigmatized," he said. "It was a matter of keeping one's head and feeling that you were doing what was right."

Later, the group expanded its work east to the Russian Caucasus, where the volatile atmosphere around Chechnya - culminating in the aid workers' kidnapping - "paralyzed" the agency for a time, said Triantafilou.

"Chechnya was a big lesson for us," Triantafilou said. "It put the whole agency on notice that you have to be really careful in what you do. You can't just be a bunch of do-gooders going into a hostile environment and expect nothing to happen to you."

Catholic Relief Services never established an operation as close to Chechnya, in part because it lacked a local partner - unlike IOCC, which was working with the Orthodox Church - and in part because conditions were too dangerous, Hackett said.

"They may have gone forward there and other places with a little too much bravado that 'we can do it,'" he said. "You learn from those things, and we learn from those things every day."

In IOCC's latest project in the West Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development is paying IOCC to create more than 3,200 jobs and teach women agricultural and craft-making skills in 24 Palestinian villages.

About 60 percent of the residents in those villages are unemployed because they can no longer work in Israel, Nora Kort, IOCC's representative in Israel, said in an interview from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian section of Jerusalem.

USAID officials say the $2.6 million program, part of a larger community services project it is funding in the region, has general support from the Israeli government. The challenge in this project will be getting through roadblocks and checkpoints to do the work.

Kort said having a host of local partners will be the key to that problem.

As it embarks on the new project, IOCC has remained in the former Yugoslavia, where it now focuses on rebuilding homes and teaching vocational and agricultural skills to refugees. That kind of work is becoming the group's focus worldwide. "We're going to continue our food programs, but we're also going to make as much of an effort if not more of an effort to continue our development activities," Triantafilou said.

And in the United States, the organization will focus on raising its profile to reach more donors, Orthodox and otherwise.

A bicycle tour, called Race to Respond, will cross the country this summer.

Along the way, cyclists will deliver testimonials about IOCC as they travel past communities with large concentrations of Orthodox Christians, such as Cleveland and Chicago.

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