Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

From Silver Spring to war-torn Georgia

County-based groups provide humanitarian relief to a nation embroiled in conflict

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Thousands of people who fled their homes as a result of fighting between Russia and Georgia have become the focus of humanitarian relief organizations around the world, including two groups based in Silver Spring.

Almost 100,000 people have been displaced and more than 2,000 killed in the southwestern Asian conflict since hostilities broke out Aug. 8, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The fighting began when Georgia, a former member of the Soviet Union, tried to reassert its control over the separatist region of South Ossetia, which borders Russia. Russia, in turn, launched an invasion of Georgia that has caused tens of thousands of people to flee northward into Russia or toward the Georgian capital city, Tbilisi, according to international news reports.

Among the organizations that have sent emergency relief crews to help those displaced are CHF International and Adventist Development and Relief Agency, two nonprofits headquartered in Silver Spring. Both groups were operating in Georgia before the latest round of hostilities.

"We can't respond to every country where there's a crisis, but in the case of a country like Georgia where we already have a presence, it seems to behoove us, and we feel like we can do something substantial," said Jennifer Hyman, communications manager for CHF International.

Richard Choularton, the director of CHF's office of humanitarian assistance, is part of the initial two-man team CHF sent to Tbilisi last week. On Aug. 13, the day of his departure, Choularton said those displaced will be in need of everything from food and medical care to clean drinking water and shelter. He said he expected to meet with representatives of the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations to determine what needs were most dire and plan a coordinated response.

"Obviously, in a crisis, that's a challenge because the situation is rapidly evolving and there is a lot of ambiguous information," Choularton said. "… We don't know how long these people are going to be displaced for, but we assume it's weeks and months."

Choularton, a Silver Spring resident, worked in Georgia once before, in 2001 for the United Nations. Then, he and others were planning a contingency response for a possible conflict in Abkhazia, another separatist region of Georgia that has become embroiled in the latest conflict. He said the current conditions of people escaping war-torn areas are similar to what was planned for in 2001.

"They're out of their homes, they're fleeing, they don't have much with them," he said.

Hearly Mayr, director of public awareness for ADRA, said his organization also has been working with its office in Georgia and the United Nations to determine how it can best help the displaced.

"Right now, we're going to start providing medical assistance," he said. "We've had health projects before in that area [South Ossetia] but because of the violence, our staff had to turn back."

Both organizations emphasized that the safety of their own workers in the region was one of their first priorities. They are also asking for donations that can be used to fund relief efforts and have set up special sections of their Web sites where people can contribute.

Hyman said CHF, which has more than 3,000 workers worldwide, will most likely focus on rebuilding efforts, such as providing transitional shelters for the displaced that can be lived in up to two years.

"The biggest gap is always now," Choularton said. "It takes the government and organizations such as ours sometime to get up and running. We have the capacity to do stuff now, but what we really need is the funding."

The following organizations are among those providing aid to those affected by the conflict in Georgia.

CHF International, 8601 Georgia Ave., No. 800, Silver Spring, 301-587-4700. Visit www.chfinternational.org.

ADRA International, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, 1-800-424-2372. Visit www.adra.org.