Sasha Chanoff, co-founder and executive director of the refugee resettlement organization RefugePoint, received the 2013 Gleitsman International Activist Award, given to an activist who has improved the quality of life for others, at a reception at Harvard Kennedy School on Tuesday evening.
“Unanimously, what we at Gleitsman heard about Sasha were testaments to his very intentional collaboration style, his passion for partnership…and nurturing the leaders within his organization,” said Casey Otis-Cote, the Associate Director for the Gleitsman Program in Social Change and Special Initiatives at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
Ralph Nader and Nelson Mandela are among past notables who have received the award, which was created and funded by television executive Alan Gleitsman and is given in alternating years to a domestic or international figure.
The reception, which was open to the public, was attended by a broad spectrum of individuals, many of whom had connections to refugee issues or Chanoff’s work.
Two graduate students at the Kennedy School said they came because of a passion for solving humanitarian problems. One tutored asylum-seekers in Hong Kong. The other, Charles Data, was himself a South Sudanese refugee in Uganda for 17 years. “I lived through my own refugee experience, and to hear the stories of others who had to leave their country under duress is moving,” he said.
Data also acknowledged that his life has developed in far more positive ways than the lives of the vast majority of refugees, in large part because he received resettlement assistance from an organization similar to RefugePoint.
After a cocktail hour, Center of Public Leadership Executive Director Patricia S. Bellinger ’83 introduced a video created by Michael Kleiman, a CPL fellow and long-time collaborator with Chanoff. The video showed the reunion of a Congolese husband and his children with their long-time refugee mother. The mother, who had been kidnapped, was reconnected with her family through the work of RefugePoint.
Chanoff then joined RefugePoint Chief Operating Officer Amy Slaughter, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Representative Shelly Pitterman, and Executive Director of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan Deng Majok Chol in a discussion about the state of refugee assistance. All the speakers said their work benefited from collaboration and the ability to empathize with refugees.
Chanoff recalled how a massacre of Congolese nationals in Burundi piqued his interest in activism, while Pitterman discussed his desire to expand a yearly “Refugee Congress” in Washington with representatives from all 50 states.
Shortly before accepting his award, specially designed by architect and artist Maya Lin, from CPL Director David R. Gergen, Chanoff again stressed the necessity for cooperation.
“The cataclysms that are befalling the world right now and are leading to more and more refugees are mind-boggling and unspeakable,” he said. “It is going to take all of us, and we need leaders who are collaborative.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: Nov. 7, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the organization where Shelly Pitterman is a regional representative. In fact, Pitterman represents the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, not its Human Rights Council.