After years of working with large non-profits and government agencies to help refugees in war-torn parts of Africa, Sasha Chanoff, N04, had seen too many victims of combat and violence who were left behind by resettlement operations. "I wanted to move out beyond what was being done already to try to find new ways of helping people," he said.
So Chanoff, a graduate of the Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance Program (MAHA), co-founded Mapendo International. Started in the spare bedroom of his Somerville, Mass., apartment, and now a relief agency with a half-million dollar budget and full-time staff in Cambridge, Mass., and Nairobi, Kenya, Mapendo is catching those who fall through the tears of the humanitarian safety net. It is named after a widowed mother of nine, Rose Mapendo, whom he helped rescue from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Much of Mapendo’s work is helping the overlooked victims of war and terror in Central and East Africa. Mapendo worked for three years, for example, to bring 600 survivors of a Tutsi massacre in Burundi to the United States this year. They also respond to requests from individuals in the United States who need help for their family members who are still overseas.
The goal is lasting solutions that go beyond refugee camps, which is why Mapendo is currently working to build a hospital and protection center to serve the estimated 50,000 to 175,000 refugees in Nairobi.
Chanoff, 36, grew up in Marlboro, Mass., and attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he graduated in 1994 with a degree in history, literature, philosophy and European languages. Hoping to put his language skills to use, he took a position as a job developer with the Jewish Vocational Service, helping refugees find work in the United States. He was supposed to talk to them about their skills and work experience. Instead, "I found myself really drawn into the stories of the people I was meeting—what their lives were like, what their struggles were like," he said. "Many of them weren’t ready to work, having lost their homes, their families and anything that meant anything to them."
Wanting to do something heartening for them, he organized a soccer tournament for Boston’s refugee community in 1998. When Sherman Teichman, director of the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts, read about it in the newspaper, he contacted Chanoff. Eight months later, they held an even-larger refugee celebration day with art, music, food and dance. It was the start of more collaboration with Teichman, who is now a Mapendo adviser.
Chanoff took his refugee work a step farther, going to Africa with the State Department to teach cultural orientation classes for U.S.-bound refugees. But he was soon recruited as an operations officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and became a consultant to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
It was during those four years traveling across Africa that Chanoff learned about refugees who rarely make it onto the lists. Refugee camps can be dangerous places for orphans, single women and ethnic minorities, who often flee the camps "and end up in urban centers where nobody assists them," Chanoff said. "Once they leave, they go off everybody’s radar." In Nairobi, Chanoff found close to 150 of these undocumented war victims who were also HIV-positive. He and Dr. John Wagacha Burton, an IOM medical officer from Kenya, got them what assistance and health care they could.
In 2003, Chanoff enrolled in Tufts’ MAHA program, studying NGO management, ethics and humanitarianism, humanitarian aid and nutrition in complex emergencies and forced migration. It allowed him to put his field work into context. But when he returned to Kenya a year later, he found that several of the HIV-positive refugees he had been helping had died.
Raising money from family and friends, he and Burton opened a small medical clinic in the slums of Nairobi for those HIV-positive refugees, torture victims, rape survivors, widows and orphans. This was the beginning of Mapendo International, which they officially founded in January 2005.