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Ken Isaacs Should Lead the International Organization for Migration

avatar by Erica and Mark Gerson

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Ken Isaacs visiting a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, where he and his organization administered diphtheria treatments to refugees in partnership with the World Health Organization. Photo:

As a rabbi and her husband, we have been blessed to be able to work (through African Mission Healthcare, which we chair) closely with Christian medical missionaries in Africa — moral superheroes who, by living their faith, devote their careers and lives to to providing indispensable medical care to those in the greatest need.

It is in this capacity that we have come to know the work of Ken Isaacs, recently nominated by President Donald Trump to lead the International Organization for Migration (IOM) — the United Nations agency charged with serving the world’s migrants.

We were recently speaking with Ken about the work he was doing in Bangladesh. He and his colleagues at Samaritan’s Purse had set up a camp for those among the 900,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who were victims of a diphtheria outbreak —  a camp that will remain active in anticipation of water-borne diseases and flooding pursuant to the rainy season.

We asked a missionary physician who specializes in infectious diseases what risks Ken assumed when Ken (at age 65) went to the camp to serve the Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh. The partial response: malaria, TB, cholera, contagious skin infections, diphtheria, dysentery, and other diarrheal diseases — with no dependable access to treatment if he himself were afflicted.

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Why would Ken leave the comforts of his North Carolina home to do this? There is only one explanation: He assumed these risks for himself because he could not tolerate that they would be a certainty for others.

This work and the moral commitment it embodies, which is extraordinary to us, is typical for Ken Isaacs. In the early 1990s, Ken arranged in Bosnia — with the IOM and the UNHCR for Muslims wounded by Serbian Christians — to get passage to the United States for surgical and medical treatment. In the late 1990s, Ken spent months at a time in Albania to identify places for, and then o build and administer facilities for tens of thousands of Muslim refugees who (often wounded) fled the Serbian regime.

During the past 20 years, Ken has led teams literally where no one else would go to bring clean water, food, agriculture aid, education, and health care to Sudan, South Sudan, and the Eastern and Southern Nuba Mountains. Ken has worked with refugees and other victims of catastrophes in Bosnia and in Haiti, in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in Niger and in Kosovo, in Somalia and in Afghanistan, in Japan and in the Philippines, all throughout Latin America — and in many other places.

His work in Liberia in 2014 was the subject of one of the most powerful and gripping films we have seen, “Facing Darkness,” which is the story of Ken and his colleagues at Samaritan’s Purse working to save victims of Ebola (including their own people) when almost all other health services had been shut down in the capital city of Monrovia.

In 2016, Ken (on behalf of Samaritan’s Purse) partnered with the Iraqi government to construct a surgical field hospital in Mosul. With numerous professionals that Ken brought — who worked alongside Iraqi physicians — this hospital treated thousands of patients, and performed over 1,700 surgeries — all with warfare raging 11 miles 1 away. They turned the clinic over to the Iraqis completely several months ago.

The Torah command to love the stranger is intimately related to statement of Genesis 1:27 — that man is created in the image of God. Not any particular man or kind of man — but that every person is created in the image of God. For Ken, this means hearing the rumors of migrants in one of the most remote places in the world, and immediately launching an operation to find them — and to provide them with food, medical care, shelter, and a way to make a living through farming. It means responding to a typhoon in another place and immediately constructing sanitary facilities that addressed the physical needs and dignity of tens of thousands who had just been displaced. It means risking crippling disease and being kidnapped for days in a falling regime.

It is this kind of commitment that has inspired idealistic young people to live and work alongside Ken in deprived and sometimes dangerous conditions to serve the poor and forgotten. It is this kind of commitment that has called on Ken’s gifts as a diplomat (negotiating with all kinds of leaders, governments, and quasi-governments) to bring care to the poor, and his gifts as an executive to marshal scarce resources to create remarkably outsized outcomes. It is this kind of commitment that has earned Ken the nickname, “the Indiana Jones of the relief movement,” from those who have seen him in action — as well as the deep respect of all who have served with him — from missionary physicians in Kenya and the Nuba Mountains, to Obama administration CDC officials in Washington.

Ken’s nomination for this position has drawn a few opponents, who base their criticism on a few social media posts over the past several years. We hope that the representatives of the member states of the IOM who are able to vote for his confirmation will instead consider Ken’s lifetime of service and the evaluation of it by people who have worked closely with him over a long period of time.

For instance, Nick Kristof of The New York Times, was recently quoted as saying: “He has been tireless in fighting for oppressed and desperate people of every faith and complexion, from Sudan to Iraq, Liberia to Bangladesh … Ken is a supreme pragmatist in his work to save lives, willing to work with anyone — even liberal New York Times columnists — to get the job done.”

In Ken Isaacs, the IOM would have a leader who has served with a lifetime of compassion in action, fueled by a moral commitment to serving the poor that is inspiring and awesome to behold. The IOM would have a leader who is uniquely capable of rallying the world’s attention and resources towards its sacred charge of protecting and supporting the world’s migrants. And the migrants served by the IOM would have a champion with a lifelong complete devotion to serving the poor, the dispossessed, and the forgotten — and with genuinely awesome effectiveness.

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