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A life with purpose/Andrew Johnston

Anne Stanton - August 31st, 2009
A life with purpose
Andrew Johnston lends a hand in the world’s most dangerous places

By Anne Stanton 8/31/09
For a guy who has seen the worst of the worst on our planet, Andrew Johnston is an easy-going sort of guy with an endearing quality of saying, “Yeah, yeah” before he responds to a reporter’s questions.
But that calm demeanor has brought him great success in Third World countries, which even the most seasoned of travelers fear to tread. Haiti. Liberia. Pakistan. And now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Johnston returned to the states recently to visit family and friends. He took some time with the Express to describe his work helping out survivors of civil war, disease, and a major earthquake.
His job of assuaging Third World misery was actually a hard one to get, but Johnston said luck and education played into it. For one, he began learning French in third grade at Pathfinder School, and then studied it intensively at Interlochen Arts Academy. French is spoken all over the world owing to French colonization.
As it turned out—and much to his own surprise—Johnston had a good head for management and math, majoring in economics at Columbia University. He worked on Wall Street in mergers and acquisitions at the age of 22, just out of college.
A few years later, he switched to a job analyzing investment opportunities for a private equity firm. Yet, despite his six-figure salary, Johnston decided that he wanted to live a life with more purpose and meaning. “… I had found it to be exhilarating to be that young and working on these complicated financial deals, but at a certain point, I realized I wasn’t as interested in material things as I thought I was,” Johnston said.
“On the day of 9/11, the outside world was brought back into my life in a big, big way, along with the things that President Bush started to do. Not long after that, I was watching my dad’s life come to an end-- he had cancer, and we were very close. He encouraged me to make a change.”

OFF TO HAITI
So Johnston, then 26, quit his job in January of 2003 and, soon afterward, discovered there was a volunteer opportunity in Haiti with the newly-formed William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative.
Clinton’s idea was to negotiate lower prices for lifesaving HIV medicines and to work with the governments to reach those most in need. The Clinton group needed someone who could speak French, as well as produce and manage budgets. Johnston was hired in March.
“It was my first real look at extreme poverty. I spent time at hospitals where people were completely emaciated. Many of them were near death or crippled because of something very easy and very inexpensive to fix. A kid didn’t get a tetanus shot so he had lockjaw. Tuberculosis is really bad there. I met with Paul Farmer (a U.S. doctor who has dedicated his life to providing health care to the world’s poor). One day I could be talking to the U.S. ambassador, and the next day I’d meet an HIV patient in her little hut. It was really exciting. There was no looking back.”
After working six months on the Haiti project, Johnston returned to the States and found a paid position with the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Founded by Albert Einstein in 1933, the group helped persecuted artists, intellectuals and others escape from Europe during World War II. Now the IRC is known as the world’s leading organization to help those displaced during times of war or natural disasters.
Johnston first worked a desk job in New York City. His big break came in January of 2007, a little over a year after a major earthquake devastated Pakistan.
More than three million people were left homeless in Pakistan. Many were stuck in the mountains, unable to get through roads blocked by landslides. IRC staff arrived at the hardest-hit areas to provide food, blankets, tents and emergency medical care. Johnston’s job was to write proposals and reports, making sure that program managers gathered data on their life-saving efforts -- data that would be used to obtain new grants.
“I was really trying to prove myself. I was an American guy learning how to get things done in a totally different environment.”

REBUILDING LIVES
In May of 2007, Johnston was promoted to acting field coordinator. He oversaw efforts to help survivors get what they needed to rebuild their lives -- clean water, health care, and infrastructure.
Johnston worked in an office in Kashmir, near the epicenter of the earthquake. His coworkers were Pakistanis, owing to IRC’s policy of employing local citizens. Johnston said that his Pakistani coworkers felt they had a stake in the project, and were ultimately able to take it over. The Pakistani workers also helped him earn the trust of the region’s power brokers -- not always an easy task.
In the village of Panjgran, for example, the Kashmiri people were initially skeptical of IRC’s plans to help.
“They didn’t trust us. This was understandable because the IRC was new to that region and foreigners hadn’t been allowed into Kashmir at all before the earthquake. We had to get the head of the village on board. He was a really good leader of the village, and we built up his confidence.
“He wanted us to build an irrigation ditch, but said we could only hire the local villagers. I told him, if we could bring in external people, we could get it done in six months instead of three years. We bought the stuff we needed from the local merchants, paid on time, made steady progress on the irrigation channel, and he finally did allow other people to come in.”
The irrigation ditch was finished in December of 2007 and rice grew in Panjgran in 2008 for the first time since the earthquake.
“We had mainly Pashtuns working with us on these projects. They are incredibly loyal once you develop a friendship, and incredibly brave. I had an engineer working on the irrigation channel, and he was working high up on the cliffs of the Himalayan mountains. I happened to learn later that he was afraid of heights. His sense of duty was so strong that he kept it completely hidden. The last thing you ask a Pashtun is, ‘Are you afraid? They will never tell you ‘yes.’ Pashtun women are the same way.”

DRIVING IN PAKISTAN
Johnston said he didn’t drive in Pakistan due to treacherous road conditions in the mountains. An experienced driver in Third World countries can mean the difference between life and death.
“Some of our staff were traveling to Swat Valley and got into an accident. It wasn’t the driver’s fault, but in most accidents in Pakistan, the locals get very angry, very fast. A group ran up to the scene, they were in a mob, waving fists, and demanding to talk to the driver. Our driver -- he wore glasses and dressed nicely -- he told them, ‘I am so sorry. The driver has already left.’ The crowd believed him, and so he saved his own life and bought our team time to hold a jirga to work things out with the community.”
Up in the mountains, Johnston rarely saw anyone who wasn’t Pakistani. He immersed himself in the culture, which is a conservative one. No drinking, no swearing, and being really careful when interacting with local women, some of whom practiced Purdah, a practice that bans women being seen by men.
Johnston became so acculturated to this conservative way of life, he felt a little shocked after a return visit to the States in the spring of 2007.
“The newsstands and magazine covers looked like pure sex to me at the time. Before I left, they didn’t seem odd to me at all.” he said. “One of the interesting sides of living overseas is that it can totally change your perspective.”

IN THE CONGO
In the spring of 2008, Johnston moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a treacherous corner of the world, even by Third World standards.
The story of Eastern Congo is not only terrifying, it’s also complex. The country was weakened by colonial exploitation and then poor governance. In 1994, the fragile government was destabilized when refugees and armed groups poured in from neighboring Rwanda, itself the site of civil war and massive genocide.
Since then, armed groups have fought to fill the power vacuum and grab the bounty of natural resources -- diamonds, copper, tin and valuable minerals needed for computers. Fighters have come from within and without. Earlier this year, for example, Rwandan soldiers crossed into Congo to attack Rwandan Hutu rebels who have been active in Congo since the Rwandan genocide 15 years ago.
Armed groups are still committing brutal human rights abuses including massacres that have decimated villages, forced labor, and the use of rape -- including gang rape -- as a weapon of war.
Amid this violence, United Nations peacekeepers and a multitude of NGOs arrived in 1999, Johnston said.
“Many Congolese here have been displaced multiple times. They’ve had their possessions looted over and over again. By current estimates, there are over a million displaced people in this part of Congo. They are either living with relatives or people who have agreed to let them live with them.”
Some have made temporary shelters for themselves -- little huts made of banana thatch and tarps that are waist high and about six feet long where people can sleep at night. Cooking is done outside, and most of the day is spent outside looking for food or work. A surprising number of people can live together in one of these small huts, he said.

LIVE VOLCANO
Johnston lives near the Rwanda border outside of Goma, where one drives not on roads, but on hardened lava. Oh yes: if a decade of Civil War hasn’t been enough, a volcano erupted in Goma seven years ago, sending a river of lava spewing through town, engulfing neighborhoods and sending residents fleeing into Rwanda. Mt. Nyirangongo still glows red in the distance, along with another active volcano -- constant reminders of an imminent eruption.
Johnston’s day begins with calls to various contacts to make sure the program sites are safe enough for his teams. The health teams supply clinics with drugs and train medical staff so that people don’t die of treatable diseases. Other teams construct water systems, build latrines, and transport emergency water in trucks. The education team bolsters schools with teachers, supplies, and training.
The health crisis is most dire. “A lot of the hospitals and clinics fell into disrepair and disuse during the war, and we have a really, really long way to go. The crisis in eastern Congo is a very important, untold story,” Johnston said.
“The IRC estimates that over five million people have died unnecessarily since 1998 because of the war, but the vast majority weren’t killed by bullets or artillery. They died because of hunger and disease. Children account for half of these deaths, despite the fact that they make up only a fifth of the population.”
The IRC is also attending to rape survivors. Congolese women on staff make sure rape survivors get emergency medical treatment, counseling and shelter. Often -- and tragically -- the staff workers must fear for themselves. There are stories of soldiers avenging the women for their work and raping them.
Despite the violence, Johnston said the numerous NGOs in the area are dedicated to remaining neutral and unarmed, driving with logos plastered on the vehicle and the international “no” sign over an AK-47 rifle. It provides a symbol to various armed groups that the workers have no political agenda, which is essential to getting across the frontline and through difficult areas, Johnston said.
“It is essential to be impartial and unarmed. It’s fundamental to what we do.”

MISTAKEN IDENTITY
For the most part, Johnston keeps his ear to the ground and avoids combat. But he’s had close brushes.
Last November, his staff heard about a cholera outbreak near Lake Edward, a four-hour drive from his Goma office. Because of skirmishes, he and his team had to make a detour into Rwanda and Uganda, adding six hours onto the trip.
“Once we got back into the Congo, no other NGOs had been around for at least three weeks, and the government troops were moving out of the area.
“As we continued to do our assessment to find out about cholera cases in a number of towns, we also noticed there was some poaching going on. We saw men carrying parts of antelope through an area that’s technically a national park. Even in the Congo, that’s a serious infraction.
“We did our assessment in this town, and on the way out, the soldiers managing a check point said that it wasn’t safe for us to cross the park. So we ended up sleeping in this small town overnight. Because of the different military groups, we were concerned the town could be attacked. So we holed up to wait for morning. It was a tourist lodge for safaris in the 1970s, a backpacker hostel that had fallen into disuse. A grimy old rundown sort of place, but it was the only hotel in town we could stay at.
“At 10 at night, there was a knock on my door, and there was a soldier from one of the groups. In the Congo this is not a good thing.”
The soldier looked at Johnston, who was wearing glasses and a goatee. He mistook him for a priest.
“He told me he really appreciated priests, and he wanted to buy me a Coke and maybe a bit of food to thank me for coming. The situation turned around 180 degrees, although I am not Catholic, and I didn’t know any prayers in French. I thought, ‘I hope he didn’t want to confess to me, but we had an hour, and we sat and talked, and I drank my Coke. And he went away. I saw him again on the way out. As of now, this guy still thinks I’m a priest.”
Johnston said that as a student at Interlochen, he was surrounded by creative people passionate about their art. He feels the same way about his work -- passionate and incredibly lucky he can work for this cause.
“Humanitarian work has shown me the power of Gandhi’s simple statement that ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world.’ Wars can drag on and on, humanitarian needs can be overwhelming, but I see over and over again that we are making a big difference in the lives of people in very difficult situations.”

 
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