Hussein Allidina, a Muslim, is the son of a Ugandan refugee who was resettled in Canada in the late 1970’s. Greg Sharenow is Jewish, the grandson of German Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Europe and were resettled by HIAS in Panama.
Before they were raising funds from donors and corporate foundations in support of refugees, they were colleagues in the financial world.
Sharing a global perspective on life, the two friends have always had a knack for discussing international affairs, human rights and interfaith issues. So when the refugee crisis began to spiral out of control, they knew they had an obligation not just to discuss—but to act.
The scale and human toll of the crisis struck a nerve in both Sharenow and Allidina—as did the sharp rise in xenophobia and anti-refugee political posturing.
From the outset, their vision was to create a way for their peers in the financial industry to join a united, interfaith response to the global refugee crisis. Sharenow and Allidina knew that professionals in the financial sector had the resources to donate. Moreover, they hoped that members a global industry like finance would feel compelled to address a challenge that impacts people from all over the world.
With the help of Michelle Brouhard, an oil trader and devout Christian, and Julie Gersten, a nonprofit veteran with nearly 15 years of experience building social change movements, the Interfaith Refugee Project was founded this spring.
At a recent event in New York City, Sharenow quipped to the 250 attendees gathered in an upscale Midtown restaurant that, “when you hear that a rabbi, a priest and an imam walked into a bar, you’re expecting a joke.”
“But today, we walked into a bar to show unity,” he quickly added. “The fact that the room is filled with so many people is a testament to both the severity of the problem at hand, as well as the will of the people to come together.”
Initially conceived as a modest fundraising effort to activate their diverse personal networks, the project soon evolved into a robust, holistic response to the current crisis, engaging a broad mix of the global finance community in the process.
The Interfaith Refugee Project splits its donations evenly among four organizations: HIAS, the global Jewish refugee agency; Islamic Relief, a Muslim nonprofit focused on relief and development; World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization; and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a secular organization which provides legal aid to refugees.
The beneficiaries selected represent the multifaith nature of the initiative, but also the range of humanitarian services that refugees and asylum seekers require. These four organizations serve refugees from the moment they first escape their home country, to life in a refugee or displaced persons camp, all the way through resettlement and the associated legal processes.
Gersten explained to HIAS that their goal was to encourage people to recognize the common humanity of all displaced people, regardless of their starting point, because, “without doing so, we would risk not meeting the critical needs of refugees.”
The Interfaith Refugee Project’s fundraising model also breaks the mold of only donating to one nonprofit at a time. “The act of giving to all four organizations at one time is unique, and has really pushed people outside of their comfort zones in a good way,” Gersten noted.
To date, the project has raised more than $100,000 to help refugees and enjoys the support of six corporate sponsors, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Citibank, and J.P. Morgan.