THE BLOG
11/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Honoring Two Great Humanitarians

In August, the world's vulnerable people lost two of their leading defenders. And I lost two of my friends.

Senator Edward Kennedy and Ken Bacon, President of Refugees International and former Pentagon spokesman, both died of cancer within weeks of each other. The disease silenced the voices of two men who devoted their lives to a more peaceful and just world and to assisting those people who have been devastated by war, poverty and oppression.

Senator Kennedy is known as a champion for quality health care, better conditions for working families, and upholding women's rights in the United States. However, he also understood that he had a responsibility to work on behalf of "our shared humanity" for people around the world. Senator Kennedy drafted and passed the Refugee Act of 1980 to increase U.S. assistance for refugees and establish the U.S. resettlement program. He was active in efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland and to end apartheid in South Africa. He also believed in strengthening ties with the Muslim world after September 11th and established a scholarship program for Muslim students to live with families and study in the U.S.

More recently, Senator Kennedy worked to support the millions of vulnerable Iraqis forced from their homes by civil conflict. This is an humanitarian tragedy I am all too familiar with from my work with Refugees International and especially through programs of the NGO I founded after my husband's death, the King Hussein Foundation which provides critical services to tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis as well as to the long-standing population of Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Since the 2003 war, more than half a million Iraqis have sought refuge in Jordan where they have struggled to address their families' most basic needs and to cling to hope for the future.

Senator Kennedy was moved by the injustice these people faced. He held hearings, spoke out and supported legislation to bring attention to the crisis, including the first legislation to help the U.S. honor its debt to Iraqis who had worked with Americans in their country.

Like Senator Kennedy, Ken Bacon also believed that we all have a responsibility to help those less fortunate. When he was spokesman at the Defense Department, Ken witnessed first-hand the human consequences of the wars in the Balkans. He became convinced that more people were needed to stop human rights abuses that led to conflict and large-scale displacement. He became President of Refugees International in 2001 and under his leadership, the organization doubled in size and increased its influence.

For those who knew Ken, the fact that he didn't move on to a more lucrative career is no surprise. Ken's kindness and generosity spread well beyond his close family and friends. He was as comfortable speaking with heads of state in the world's capital cities as he was meeting in muddy camps with refugees who had lost everything.

As a member of Refugees International's board of directors, I watched with admiration as Ken relentlessly campaigned for more assistance for refugees and displaced people in places like Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cambodia.

I traveled to Pakistan for RI in 2001 to assess the status of Afghan refugees fleeing the war, and together this spring Ken and I issued a joint appeal for increased assistance to the problem of Pakistanis displaced by conflict in the Swat Valley.

In 2006, Ken led Refugees International to investigate the plight of Iraqi refugees at a time when few people -- other than perhaps Senator Kennedy -- were willing to acknowledge or speak out about this matter. Overall, the efforts by people like Ken and Senator Kennedy resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in support for displaced Iraqis throughout the Middle East and in far greater numbers of Iraqis being allowed to resettle in the U.S.

In March, Ken traveled to Iraq to meet with displaced Iraqis first-hand and identify what was needed to help them return home. He listened to their stories of heartbreak and hope. Just days after he returned to the U.S., as he was preparing to share his findings with top government officials, a tumor was found in his brain. Yet, even that didn't stop him from doing what he could to help the people he had met in Iraq -- one week after his brain surgery, he testified to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that assistance, property restitution, and the provision of basic services were essential for Iraqis to return home.

In the final months of his life, Ken turned his passion to the threat of climate displacement. And in typical Ken fashion, just a few weeks prior to his death, he and his wife Darcy provided a generous donation to establish the Ken and Darcy Bacon Center for the Study of Climate Displacement.

Ken frequently said, "A world without displacement is a world that is more secure, more peaceful and more prosperous." This is the world that he and Senator Kennedy believed in.

It is a world that I believe in as well, and will continue working to achieve, even as I miss two extraordinary friends, colleagues and humanitarian pillars of our work for peace and security.

Please join me in honoring their lives by carrying their vision forward.