The Church in Action: IOCC Helps Thousands of People Worldwide

NEW YORK – Philanthropy and humanitarian assistance – two of the most important charges for all Christians and their Churches. Denomination is irrelevant when it comes to helping people in need, and International Orthodox Christian Charities plays a crucial role in getting emergency relief, as well as long-term development aid, to thousands of people all over the world.

IOCC, the philanthropic arm of SCOBA (Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America), was formed in a crucible of crisis back in the early 1990’s, when SCOBA was responding to socioeconomic upheaval in the Soviet Union and wars in the former Yugoslavia.

IOCC is the Church in action, the organization’s officials point out, and not without considerable credence.

The Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union created tremendous hardship for people of all faiths living in historically Orthodox Christian lands. There was a clear and present need, so SCOBA formed IOCC.

Two men played particularly key roles: the late Archbishop Iakovos and IOCC Founder John Rangos Sr., whose family foundation paid over $1 million for the transport of food and medical commodities from warehouses to American military aircrafts, which airlifted those supplies to Russia on two separate occasions back in 1992.

“IOCC began as a SCOBA agency in 1992, responding to food and medical needs in Russia. Mr. Rangos was the chairman then,” IOCC Executive Director Constantine M. Triantafilou told the National Herald.

“Mr. Rangos has been an extremely strong supporter. ‘Keep your powder dry, Tiger,’ he would always say. ‘It’s all about transparency and accountability, my friend,’ he used to tell me when I was out in the field. He was, and continues to be, a driving force behind IOCC,” Mr. Triantafilou said.

“The airlifts to Russia were before my time, but from my perspective, a lot of things came together in the beginning. You had Archbishop Iakovos and the bishops of SCOBA, who were all extremely supportive of the idea of an inter-jurisdictional Pan-Orthodox charity. And you had John Rangos, Andy Athens and Charles Ajalat. Each was pursuing his own philanthropic interests at the time. Then Mr. Rangos and Archbishop Iakovos got to talking, and they started pulling it together with Mr. Athens and Mr. Ajalat,” Mr. Triantafilou said.

“Mr. Rangos obviously came out strong at the very beginning by footing some of the bills himself. He paid for those airlifts to Russia,” he added.

Mr. Rangos secured Department of Defense services through the office of Congressman John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania) for the missions. Donations from corporations in the Pittsburgh area and through the Brother’s Brother Foundation amounted to $4.8 million, and provided 230,000 pounds of supplies.

Mr. Rangos now serves as an honorary board member of IOCC, and still maintains an abiding interest in its mission. He gave $200,000 in 2007 to help the organization provide 250 metric tons of animal feed to Peloponnesian farmers whose homes and grazing lands were destroyed by the devastating wildfire disaster which struck Greece two years ago.

“IOCC is the Church in action. We have to help people in need, and this organization has done, and continues to do, remarkable work. IOCC helps bring the rest of the world in touch with the Orthodox Church and faith. It reflects what we’re all supposed to be doing as Christians,” Mr. Rangos told the Herald.

Since 1992, IOCC has delivered more than $300 million in humanitarian and development assistance through its programs in 33 different countries, to include the United States, with unwavering commitment to Orthodox Christian compassion and justice. In the process, the organization has partnered with the U.S. Government and forged ecumenical alliances with a number of other faith-based groups.

IOCC’s distinguished service includes its response to the humanitarian crises in the Balkans, providing continuous aid during the war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, as well as during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, when NATO attacked the Serbian military and Albanian paramilitaries continued battles with Serbian forces amid a massive displacement of the indigenous population there.

IOCC continues to help the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro recover from a decade of war, international sanctions and isolation, and Mr. Triantafilou, whom Mr. Rangos calls “a real hero,” visits these areas several times a year.

“In 1991-92, war broke out in Yugoslavia, and Serbia and Croatia started splitting up. At the same time, while the actual war didn’t carry into Serbia, there were international sanctions against Serbia. All medical institutions and the entire economic infrastructure were shut down. Our priorities to bring in medical supplies – from medicine for premature infants to medical cotton for ob-gyn centers,” Mr. Triantafilou said.

“In Bosnia, where there were food shortages and problems with hygiene, the program focused on emergency relief, providing supplies to people who had been displaced from their homes. In 1995, with the Dayton Accords (the peace agreement for Bosnia-Herzegovina reached at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio) and the end of the war, there was a massive movement of people out of Bosnia. Croatian Serbs left what is now Croatia for Serbia. You also had Bosnian Serbs and Muslims moving into the Federation side. We’re talking about more than 500,000 people moving within a three-month period. It was a very trying time for everybody,” he said.

“Kosovo is also a major focal point for IOCC. We were in a really good position to work in Kosovo in the early 1990’s. During the war in 1999, we re-established our office, working hand-in-hand with the Church to support its efforts to maintain its presence in Kosovo, and helping communities around the Church. When you have emergency relief and development programs in place, there’s a certain sense of security those communities feel because there’s an external organization supporting them and helping them grow, and helping them have the security to return or to stay,” he said.

“So a lot of what we did in the Balkans, both in Bosnia and in Kosovo, was help people rebuild their homes, and then rebuild their lives through supportive agriculture grants, equipment and microfinancing (loans to low-income clients). We try to help people re-establish the means to support themselves,” he added.

Asked whether IOCC faces the possibility of getting drawn into Kosovo’s political tensions – getting caught between Serbs who don’t want to relinquish Kosovo, which they consider their heartland, and ethnic Albanians – Mr. Triantafilou said IOCC’s philanthropic activities normally help the organization promote peace and reconciliation, and avoid any confrontations.

“Indirectly, through our programs, we try to promote stability for the people and communities we support. There’s a winery in Kosovo. It’s run by a monastery. It needs laborers, so it needs to hire people to support its operations. They have crops they want to harvest, so they buy grapes from Serbian farmers, but they also buy grapes from Albanian farmers. So we’re not just promoting an income for the Serbian farmers in that particular area. We’re also doing it for the Albanian farmers. And through that kind of outreach, we promote peace and reconciliation. So are we directly involved with conflict resolution? No. Are we indirectly involved by supporting the Church and helping it rebuild a whole community? Yes,” he said.

Mr. Triantafilou, 45, manages all facets of IOCC’s relief and development programs, including its international headquarters in Baltimore and nine field offices in Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East.

He had a loaded schedule this past summer. He was in Belgrade for two weeks, and his next three weeks were spent in the Republic of Georgia, where he met with Patriarch Ilia II and paid a visit to the Georgia Patriarchate’s beef cattle farm in southern Georgia. He also went to Greece to check on the 2007 wildfire response; to Kosovo to visit IOCC’s Kosovo projects; and then to Bosnia.

The farm in Georgia started after Mr. Triantafilou became IOCC’s director of programs in 1996. One of his first trips was to Georgia that year. He met with Patriarch Ilia, who informed him that the Georgian Government had been restoring the Church of Georgia’s lands, and that the Church had some sizeable farming properties it wanted to recultivate.

“Over the next ten years, we tried to secure some private donations, and then about a year and a half ago, we entered into a relationship with the University of Maryland College of Agriculture, studying IOCC’s agricultural projects all over the world. Part of that involved looking at the patriarchal farm in Georgia and re-establishing it. Agriculture is one of our major focuses, and the demonstration farm in Georgia is one of our key components for that,” Mr. Triantafilou said.

The farm currently has 150 head of cattle, he said, and is looking into the possibility of expanding operations to include dairy cattle, as well as refrigeration to transport beef to Tbilisi.

“No matter how many times you go somewhere, every trip is different. It’s always good to get back out in the field. You can read about it all you want, but unless you’re out there – feeling it and tasting it, and talking to people about what’s going on in there lives – you don’t get a real feel for the situation, or how things our going in their interaction with us. Sixteen years later, I see something new, and it helps make me that much more focused and invigorated,” Mr. Triantafilou said.

“You sit with a family in their home; break bread with them for an hour and half; and drink a little plum brandy. You develop a personal relationship with the people you’re trying to help. I visited one elderly woman and her husband outside of Ossetia – they were displaced by the conflict there last year – and she gave me cherries to eat. I’ll never forget that. This poor woman had nothing, and yet she shared everything she had. You can’t help but be affected by something like that,” he said.

“In Kosovo, I stayed at the Decani Monastery. One night, I heard some commotion through the window. Then I realized they started distributing pregnant heifers, which the Church purchased with Norwegian funds for families that are still living and trying to stay in Kosovo. I went to visit those families, and while they were receiving those heifers from the Church, we were rebuilding a barn. So in cooperation with the Church, we’re seeing these projects come to life,” he said.

“When you’re sitting there with the monks of the monastery and the families you’re trying to help, it hits you all over again: This is the Church in action. We’re talking about 50 families and 20 monks in a small area, but it really says a lot to you when you see people helping people under the most dire circumstances, surrounded by barbed wire and Italian military (international peacekeeping forces). We’re doing the work of Christ by helping people who want to stay in their homes,” he added.

Many people IOCC helps are Orthodox Christians, Mr. Triantafilou said, but many non-Orthodox also benefit from the organization’s efforts.

“We help the target population – those most in need – wherever we work. That sounds like a textbook answer, but it’s true. We go to those who are most in need. We don’t tell people to check themselves off as Orthodox in order to justify helping them,” he said.

“The program in Bosnia started in response to requests from the Church. If you’re working in Georgia, it’s a predominantly Orthodox Christian country,” he said.

“If you’re working in Kosovo, the population we can reach responsibly and safely as an international Orthodox Christian charity, as a U.S. faith-based NGO, will be predominantly Orthodox; however, there will also be another group of beneficiaries, as in the case of the winery in Kosovo, that will be non-Orthodox,” he explained.

“When I worked in Bosnia, in the Serbian-held area of the conflict, there were also Muslims and Croats, so a percentage of our food-relief also went to people who were not Orthodox,” he said.

“In Ethiopia, the Church has a broad scope and reach, so USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) wants the message to come from the Church. But if you look at a place like Iraq or Lebanon, while there are Orthodox there, neither of those countries are Orthodox. In Lebanon, our school lunch program is in public schools, which are dominated by non-Orthodox,” he added.

War-torn areas like Kosovo and the Middle East are also riddled with crime. Asked whether he ever fears for the safety and lives of his staff, or for his safety and life, in countries where there is tension and instability, Mr. Triantafilou cited the abduction of two IOCC staffers in Russia 12 years ago.

“On any given day, we have IOCC staff members putting their lives on the line. We have people working in places like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria; Jerusalem and Gaza; supporting the Church in Iraq. We had two employees kidnapped in Chechnya in the fall of 1997, and that was a rude awakening. Yes, I worked through the war in Bosnia – I’ve had guns put to my head – but when those two Russian kids were held hostage under my watch, it made the danger even more real for me. I spent the next year working with the board to help secure their release. One was held for six months, and one was held for 11 months before they got out,” he said.

With a staff of 100 people – 20 stateside and 80 overseas – IOCC, like many other not-for-profit organizations, depends on grants and private contributions to operate. IOCC’s 2008 budget provided for $35 million in program services and various projects, Mr. Triantafilou said.

Ten percent of its budget depends on support from Orthodox Christian parishes throughout the United States, he said. Another 30-40 percent comes from U.S. Government grants, through various branches and agencies, like USAID or the State Department’s Bureau for Population-Refugee Migration. In previous years, U.S. Government grants comprised three quarters of IOCC’s budget.

“If you were asking me for numbers in 2002 or 2003, I would’ve told you it was 75 percent. Why? Because we had a 28,000-ton food program in Russia. We don’t have such numbers to skew our portfolio now. We’re much more balanced. Anywhere from 20-50 percent in any given year could be from the U.S. Government,” Mr. Triantafilou said.

“BPRM is one of our strong traditional partners. They funded us in Syria and Jordan. With USAID, we work with groups like the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. It’s all about distribution, whether it’s for short-term emergency recovery or long-term development,” he said.

“The rest comes from private funding from the Church and donors here in America. And then you’ve got other ecumenical partners like Church World Services, the United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. We’ve got our U.S.-based ecumenical partners, and we’ve got our European-based partners, too. The ecumenical alliance is a big piece of the puzzle. The ecumenical relationships, now under the flag of ‘Action by Churches Together,’ the worldwide ecumenical alliance for relief and development, are very important for us,” he said.

“The school lunch program we did under the U.S. Department of Agriculture – promoting education in Lebanon and Georgia – brought food commodities into the country so that there could be lunches in school for kids to be able to stay in school without going hungry. At the same time, we provided them with backpacks we got from CWS, which had pencils, paper and other school supplies to help them while they’re in school and, on top of that, bring educational books to them. By helping advance education for children, you contribute to a country’s long-term development,” he added.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the other Orthodox jurisdictions in America all support IOCC in one way or another, Mr. Triantafilou said, and the organization typically enjoys a solid response from direct mailings across the country around Christmastime and during Lent.

IOCC does not receive a standard annual allocation from the Archdiocese, however.

“All the bishops of SCOBA help raise money for IOCC from their parishes, and from private donors. We also have around 27 groups of people who volunteer to support us through awareness and fundraising activities across the country. That’s another way we raise our money in the U.S.,” he said.

But the amount from the Archdiocese varies each year, he said. The Archdiocese gave IOCC $1.9 million to help with Greek wildfire relief ($250 thousand in November 2007 and $1.65 million in February 2008), for example, and the National Philoptochos Society also makes contributions to IOCC each year.

“And while we haven’t applied for a Leadership 100 grant in quite some time, Leadership 100 was very supportive in the early days, as were the Brother’s Brother and Farah Foundations, which helped us get through some critical transition periods,” he said.

“We also have a large gifts-in-kind program, where we get books, medicine and commodities donated for IOCC to distribute. Those aren’t cash donations, but it’s a big pocket. Last year alone, we received over $20 million worth of gifts-in-kind. We get a container of books from Brother’s Brother, for example, and we’re able to distribute those on behalf of IOCC and the Church in Ethiopia. One container could be worth half a million dollars,” he added.

As for wildfire relief efforts in Greece, Mr. Triantafilou said IOCC checked with the Greek Government about this year’s destructive flames in and around northern Athens – as well as with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople about the floods in Turkey – but was told everything was under control.

“We always check to see if there’s a gap we can fill, and no role was identified for us to play in either of those two cases,” he said.

But relief efforts pertaining to the 2007 wildfire disaster in Greece are ongoing, he noted. In the follow-up effort (Phase III) from April 13 to May 15 of this year, the total IOCC distribution of animal feed to farmers in the Peloponnese was 500 metric tons, providing half-day rations to 19,073 animals for 52 days. The Archdiocese gave IOCC an additional $800 thousand in December 2008 to continue its livelihood recovery project in Greece.

“It’s clearly something that needs to continue to be revisited because people still need help. As far as long-term support, the second aspect to supporting Greek farmers is doing a soil lab, which farmers could have cost-effective access to in the Peloponnese, so that they wouldn’t have to go to Athens to test their soil in order to make their claims. That’s what we’re doing right now,” Mr. Triantafilou said. The Archdiocese gave IOCC an additional $495 thousand in December 2008 to build the soil laboratory.

As far as U.S.-based efforts are concerned, IOCC has also been helping people struck by disasters in the United States in recent years (e.g., Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma). Mr. Triantafilou said providing humanitarian aid stateside is a necessary aspect of obtaining U.S. Government funds for projects and programs elsewhere.

“We’re an American-based charity. We have to help people in our own country. Since 9/11 and Katrina, our U.S. efforts have started to take off. These last three or four years, we’ve been trying to procure more support from SCOBA’s jurisdictions for the Orthodox communities in stricken areas, and then spreading our support to non-Orthodox around those communities. As far as Katrina goes, we only had a couple of first responders, but we worked closely with the Catholic and Protestant Churches, and now we’ve got over 40 trained frontliners who we can send as first responders to an emergency to help us make a needs assessment,” he said.

“The Church has a role to play in response to humanitarian crises everywhere, and we’ve been able to grow and expand our efforts in non-Orthodox countries, which also fulfills the mandate that we should be reaching out to all of God’s people,” he added.