At 78 I am becoming more reflective. As the world of pandemic and populism takes a darker turn, I am reflecting on the imperfect but remarkable era in which I was privileged to live. I pray that the next generation will have the same experience of progress and hope.
First and last lines of a poem written in May 1965 after my return from the Selma Montgomery march.
The march made its mark on America but also on the trajectory of my life.
I grew up in an immigrant enclave in the wrong part of a Canadian city. My immigrant grandparents located there to grow their own food and survive as a community. Roads were unpaved, public transport was distant and indoor plumbing was a luxury I experienced in my home only at age 16. The “other” in my early years in this Dutch/Russian Mennonite immigrant enclave, would be an Anglo-Saxon or the rather rough hillbilly children north of another set of tracks. A displaced Japanese friend was the sole exception.
Despite these circumstances I was blessed with a mother who survived her own epic refugee journey through China to earn three degrees and teach at an American University. My refugee father circumvented the post WWI world in the opposite direction via Europe and Mexico. With gritty persistence and Grade 11 he built a major company that employed thousands.
University in Canada was the beginning of my personal awakening. My studies were advanced Physics and Business, but my experience was the world of students and issues from around the world. I attended Banff International Christmas, spent four months exploring Europe on a motorcycle and attended every political and international event available.
After graduating with highest marks in my program I realized that Physics and Business was less than a complete preparation for that emerging complicated world. Consequently, I enrolled in a Liberal Arts College in the American Midwest to study the Humanities. I became friends with people who were not like me. They represented many other racial and cultural backgrounds. I invited Jan to attend a Valentine Dance, but she repeatedly turned me down. She finally stated: “Art – don’t you get it? If I show up they will not let me in.” Jan was black from South Chicago and the event was at a private golf club. It was a shock and a revelation.
Those were interesting times. I would lead the 1964 anti-Goldwater campaign on campus and as a pacifist participated in anti-VietNam events when the first soldiers were sent in March of 1965. I found myself attracted to a rat-pack that was deep into American racial issues. This led me to join a group of 6 to travel to Montgomery and join 25,000 local and outside activists in the finale of Selma-Montgomery.
My introduction to these issues went beyond the march. I became friends with another Jan whose father, Clarence Jordan, founded Koinonia Farms – the radical inter-racial experiment of the 40’s in South Georgia. I maintained contact with Koinonia and became close friends with Millard Fuller a decade before he founded Habitat for Humanity. We visited local shacks that would later inspire his ministry.
My activism did not go unnoticed. My preferred career at that point was in the diplomatic Service of Canada. I had secured a position but delayed entry to take that extra year of College to study the Humanities. At the end of the year the Government of Canada advised that I no longer qualified. A bit of research revealed that the FBI director at the time was none other than J. Edgar Hoover! The FBI had visited the campus to check me out. The report they sent to Canada resulted in the cancellation of my job.
How to respond? I decided to double down on business – the craft I had already studied and the legacy of sitting at the kitchen table with my father. At that time Harvard was considered the best Business School and it never occurred to me that they might not want me. I was later told by Admissions that my background from refugees/immigrants, a minor ethnicity, Western Canada plus my recent activism would have been factors – rather than the more typical father on Wall Street. I also scored well on the tests and later in the program.
Harvard or rather the ferment of Harvard Square added to my education. Joan Baez was playing in the local coffee shops and years later we would meet and collaborate in Geneva to affect the outcome of a United Nations Conference on Cambodia. I interviewed with the UN in New York before graduation. Their advice: You can start now and likely succeed but stay in the professional ranks. Develop experience and a reputation externally and enter later in a policy position. 15 years later Kofi Annan as head of personnel for UNHCR would offer me the leadership of one of the largest refugee programs – Somalia.
Leadership of a program in Bangladesh immediately after independence (1972) was a very deep immersion into issues of Peace and War, racial and religious intolerance and hunger. It also taught me the reality and limitations of the politics surrounding the world of Assistance, Justice and Political Correctness. It was a great foundation for understanding of complex issues and relationships that survive to this day. It was also a foundation for my own self-understanding that I could compete and be effective in that complicated world.
Bangladesh was the foundation for our multi-racial family. It was a long way from my childhood. Our present family of two couples and four grandchildren were born in six different countries on four continents and between them hold 14 passports and are entitled to an additional number.
“I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.”
The boat people were a natural continuation of my experience in Bangladesh. Same agencies, many of the same people in a new catastrophe. That would lead to the border of Cambodia and the Landbridge. I consider the Landbridge my most meaningful and consequential intervention. The Cambodia Landbridge is largely unrecorded but made a huge and positive impact, in spite of implacable adversaries and incredible politics. It was a testimony to our collective will and ability to solve complex problems.
Somebody noticed and two years later that resulted in an invitation to be the Head of UNHCR in Somalia.
Somalia was the victim of regional, global and religious politics. It was an insoluble problem before I arrived and history has not been any kinder.
The decline and collapse of the Soviet Union would bring my global experience and personal history together. I would experience the declining Soviet Empire at the highest levels and at the unauthorized fringes. Our approach to borders, programs and permission resembled a game of chess with flexible rules. Leona and I would experience the final days of empire and share the last night of its existence inside the barricades. On reflection, I am amazed at the audacity of our actions and the risks we considered reasonable. In the end it would result in a number of initiatives that were and remain productive.
Later years would create opportunities to participate and influence situations and events that are still current. These include the Peace Process in Myanmar and the plight of students in the ISIS and post-ISIS wreckage.
Along the way there would be opportunities to start or support initiatives.
- The Canadian Foodgrains Bank – CFGB – Initiated in 1975 has grown into a major and unique agency based in Canada to address global issues of food security.
- IDE – International Development Enterprises – was a product of the chaos of Somalia. IDE is a respected agency today dealing with important issues related to poverty and development.
- I was privileged to participate in the creation of the Innovative PNP – Provincial Nominee Program that has been adopted nationally and is an important element in the Canadian system of immigration.
- LCC International University is located in Lithuania and hosts students from 50 nations with the mandate to produce graduates who have internalized ethical values, appreciate an open society and have a sense of responsibility to others.
Life is a journey. In my 78th year there is more time for reflection and less opportunity for new ideas – but I still have plenty of those as well. After visiting 143 countries COVID-19 gives me the opportunity to stay home and reflect.
I am grateful to Leona, my partner in life, to the country where I am privileged to live and to the Creator who has given all of us these opportunities.