Heifer Project International is looking to its past successes in war-torn areas to develop an approach to helping build peace in the Middle East.
Heifer, based in Little Rock, Ark., has a long history of helping countries rebuild after being devastated by war. Heifer, which provides animals to families for food and income, helped with livestock repopulation after wars in Japan, Korea and Europe.
More recently, Heifer has worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Rwanda and Afghanistan. Heifer operates independently of the U.S. government.
“Heifer International endeavors to heal the wounds of war and to build understanding, cooperation and sharing—fostering a climate that could help avert future wars,” said Heifer President Jo Luck in a statement at www.heifer.org.
Jim DeVries, Heifer’s vice president of international programs, said the war in Iraq has helped Heifer seize upon its peacemaking history.
“We grew out of the Church of the Brethren, which is a peace church,” said DeVries, a 20-year Heifer employee. “Our founder, Dan West, was a conscientious objector. He did alternative service in Spain after the civil war there.”
“He felt like the kind of work we’re doing is instrumental to building and maintaining peace,” DeVries said.
DeVries said the war in Iraq has affected Heifer’s work in several different ways.
First, Heifer staff has had to reconsider international travel and security measures.
“Another thing, though, that is more significant in the long term is that this has caused us to re-examine and to bring to the fore again our involvement in peacemaking and stability and justice,” he said.
Americans have a unique role—and burden, according to DeVries.
“The world out there has a very different view of some of the American policies,” he said. “It is important for people to study and understand this conflict.”
He also encouraged prayer and spiritual reflection.
“How can we show love?” he asked.
“By loving people, by showing compassion to them, by feeding them, by helping them have peace and tranquility in their life and by having justice—in access to resources—this is fundamental,” he said.
Americans struggle to understand how one animal can change a family’s life, but it can, said Rafal Laski, Heifer’s Central/Eastern Europe program director.
“Close to St. Petersburg, Russia, we have projects with goats,” he said. “One goat can change a life and help an entire family.”
Rampant poverty throughout Central and Eastern Europe surprises Americans when Laski makes presentations about his work, he said. They are shocked to discover just how helpful animals can be.
So, while prayer and spiritual reflection are important, actually supporting organizations on the “front line” is also critical, said DeVries.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m very concerned.’ Put some action in there,” DeVries said. “Express concern to those making decisions. Contribute to those organizations like Heifer.”
“Say to the people in Afghanistan, ‘We really do care.’ Say to the people in Iraq, ‘We care about you as individuals. We don’t hate you.'”
Randy Hyde, Heifer supporter and pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., agreed that positive relationships between Western and Middle Eastern cultures are crucial.
“Anything we can do to help bridge that ever-widening gap between our culture and the Muslim culture, I’m for it, because they see us as the enemy,” said Hyde.
He added that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had changed his outlook.
“For the first in my life, I understood emotionally what it was like to be hated, and to be terrorized because you’re hated,” he said. “How would you like to live like that all the time?”
“Anything we can do to help bridge the gap would be helpful,” he said. “Anything.”
DeVries told a story about when he visited a Jordanian farmer—a Muslim—who had received some animals from Heifer. DeVries said he asked the farmer, “Why do you think Americans would be giving you a dairy cow? What do you think motivates them to do that?”
The farmer responded, “I think it’s just because of love that God has placed in the hearts of people.”
“If we can encourage that kind of love and understanding,” DeVries said, “it will build peace.”
Laski told EthicsDaily.com that people in many countries are surprised to learn that Americans would be interested in giving them animals for free.
“They don’t believe they could receive something for free,” Laski said. They ask him “where the business is” for Heifer, not understanding that Heifer’s “business” relies on goodwill.
Laski remembered being in one village to help launch a particular Heifer project. He recalled that local officials turned out and said, “It’s a miracle. We receive free cows from Americans!”
Heifer Project began in 1944 and has continued ever since, even through the difficult Cold War years.
During the Cold War, Heifer undertook projects in “unpopular places” like Russia, China, Poland and Communist Bloc countries, said DeVries.
Heifer wanted to rehabilitate and restore the livestock populations and, in so doing, bring stability to certain regions.
In war, animals are stolen, sold and killed, DeVries said. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, about 80 percent of larger animals were “lost.”
Since families in Communist Bloc countries had limited land, their agricultural needs were even more acute, putting resources like family cows at a premium.
After the United Nations went into Bosnia-Herzegovina, Heifer got involved and, in partnership with the Church World Service, provided about 100 head of cattle to people there.
DeVries also mentioned the war in Kosovo in 1999, which prompted many people to flee to neighboring Albania, where Heifer was already working. In fact, refugees from Kosovo wound up staying with Albanian families who had cows—compliments of Heifer.
“It was wonderful to see how hospitable Albanians were to people,” said DeVries, “taking in 10 to 15 people and sharing what they had.”
When Kosovo families began returning to their country, they of course had no livestock. They turned to Heifer, which sent a delegation to the country on the heels of NATO peacekeepers.
Heifer, with help from its Albanian office, focused on western Kosovo. DeVries said Heifer has assisted roughly 300 families by now, giving them dairy animals and sheep to help jumpstart production. Now, Kosovo has its own Heifer office.
Laski mentioned one of Heifer’s unique peace projects in Albania.
“People who are going to take our animals, they have to give back weapons,” he said. “For two guns, they receive one heifer,” he said. It’s another way Heifer tries to build peace.
And DeVries pointed to Heifer’s recent work in Afghanistan as yet another example of how the organization has operated in war-torn areas.
“We had been working with Afghanistan refugees for some years, helping those living in camps in Pakistan to get some poultry,” said DeVries, “and working with them on gender issues.”
After Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban were displaced, some refugees went back to the country. But efforts are still under way there.
DeVries characterized Heifer’s efforts in Afghanistan as “relatively modest” but nevertheless significant for stability.
“We look for situations where there’s a discriminated-against group, or there’s been war and disasters and people just need to get back on their feet and have a way to support themselves,” said DeVries.
“And we very strongly believe that people can feed themselves. That’s a stabilizing thing for themselves and the country.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Visit Heifer Project International on the Web.