My Heroes – Profiles in Courage – International Justice Mission

June 26, 2014

In the video trailer for my new novel, The Garden of Burning Sand, I ask a question that all of us have to wrestle with: Can one person really make a difference when there is so much wrong in so many places?

Last month, I began a series of posts called “Profiles in Courage” that highlight the work of people I’ve met in my travels who prove that the answer to that question is yes. If you missed my first installment about Eric and Holly Nelson and their inspiring work with children with special needs in Zambia, you can read it here.

This month, I turn my attention to the International Justice Mission, a global human rights agency combating violence against the poor around the world.

International Justice Mission

In 1994, Gary Haugen, a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, went to Rwanda with a UN delegation to document the genocide. When he saw the bodies of men, women, and children hacked to death in churches and fields and stadiums, he had an epiphany: all of the efforts of the international community to ameliorate the effects of extreme poverty in the developing world turn to dust in the face of violence. When the radical Hutus overran Kigali armed with machetes and addled by bloodlust, their Tutsi victims had no use for health care, medicine, food, water, education, or job training–the aid traditionally offered by the humanitarian community.

They needed one thing above all else: someone to stop the hand of the abuser.

As Gary realized, however, the problem of violence—whether spectacular, like genocide, or ordinary, like sexual assault—is rarely linked to an absence of codified law. Most countries have a criminal code that prohibits murder, rape, robbery, fraud, etc. Violence proliferates where there is a lack of effective law enforcement. Where police and politicians are corrupt and judicial systems are overrun by graft and inefficiency, criminals exploit the powerless and abuse the poor—those who cannot afford to hire security guards and lawyers and pay bribes to public servants.

In 1997, Gary left the Justice Department and founded the International Justice Mission, or IJM, to offer free legal support and social services to poor victims of violence. Nearly two decades later, IJM has 20 field offices in 13 countries and combats everything from child sex trafficking and rape to land-grabbing, police abuse, and forced labor.

Their approach is holistic. They partner with local law enforcement to rescue victims of abuse and injustice. They assist local prosecutors in bringing the abusers to justice. They provide social services, including shelter, psychological counseling, eduction, and job training, to the victims and their families. And they build relationships with community leaders to root out corruption, ensure that justice is dispensed fairly, and give a voice to the poor.

I had the privilege to spend time on the ground with IJM’s teams in Mumbai, India and Lusaka, Zambia as I researched A Walk Across the Sun and The Garden of Burning Sand. I interviewed their investigators, went to court with their lawyers, and visited safe houses where victims are cared for in the aftermath of abuse. I’ve also gotten to know a number of IJM’s executives in the United States, including Gary Haugen. I can say from personal experience that IJM’s people are exceptional in their talent, in their bravery, and in their commitment to the work of justice.

The obstacles are enormous and the perils significant, but they face them every day with passion, determination, and hope, and they see change happen. Children are rescued from slavery, widows are restored their land, victims of sexual assault are vindicated in court and supported as they recover, policemen who abuse their power are put behind bars, and communities that once were riven by crime and violence are slowly transforming into havens of peace and safety.

It’s a beautiful work, and it demonstrates beyond doubt that ordinary people can make a huge difference, if only we have the courage to try.