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Potomac Couple Heads Up Relief Efforts

IRD mobilizes to help the immediate needs and long-term recovery of the people hit by the tsunami.

asna Basaric-Keys can sympathize with the plight of those who survived last months devastating tsunami in South Asia. Amid the grief of 162,000 dead, most of the survivors have been left homeless and face hunger and disease in the months ahead.

Basaric-Keys can relate because she is a native of Bosnia, and her own family has been displaced since the mid-1990s.

”I got initially involved in humanitarian assistance because I worked on Capitol Hill and my wife is from Bosnia and her whole family was uprooted and became refugees as a result of the war in Bosnia,” said Rev. Dr. Arthur Keys. International Relief and Development (IRD), an organization headed by Keys, has provided $6 million in aid to Indonesia and Sri Lanka since the tsunamis struck Dec. 26.

Keys founded the Arlington, Va.-based non-profit in 1998, “to reduce the suffering of the world's most vulnerable groups by providing them with the tools and resources needed to become self-sufficient.” IRD now operates in more than 16 countries, assisting in preventative health care, disease control, nutrition, and economic development.

“Six years ago we had three people: my wife and my daughter and I,” said Keys, who lives in Potomac. “Now we have close to 700 employees. … My daughter is our office manager and my wife is in charge of all our public health programs.”

KEYS WAS ONE of 24 representatives of non-governmental organizations invited to meet with President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios Jan. 10 to discuss aid for the tsunami-affected regions.

“[The President] said the aid needs to be demand driven. The specifics of what is needed needs to come from the bottom up and I agree with that,” Keys said.

“It was a very freewheeling exchange. He asked us specifically about our food assistance in Aceh. … We have a noodle production project so we were able to send up 50 metric tons of noodles. I would say he was very interested and he’s very interested that the U.S. show a very positive humanitarian face, particularly in areas of Asia where people might not have seen much of the U.S. presence in recent years.”

IRD received a $25,000 grant from USAID last week and Keys said he expects other grants in the next few days.

TWO DAYS EARLIER, Keys was at Andrew’s Air Force Base helping load a U.S. Navy aircraft with 10,000 pounds of pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, ready-to-eat food, hygiene kits and toys to be delivered to Indonesia by a six-member Congressional delegation. The cargo, collected by the congressmen, will be distributed by IRD’s emergency teams in Medan, Indonesia.

“This is a people-to-people trip, bringing U.S. condolences to the victims in Indonesia from everyday Americans. We won’t be there very long, and are trying to just get a sense of the effort on the ground, and how we can be most effective,” said U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX).

The other delegation members were U.S. Reps. Curt Weldon (R-PA), Sylvester Reyes (D-TX), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), Fred Upton (R-MI), and Eliot Engel (D-NY), who resides in Potomac while Congress is in session.

In addition to the supplies being delivered by the Congressional delegation, IRD has distributed two containers of clothing and over 40 metric tons of ready to eat food and water to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, reaching over 35,000 people. Together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, IRD diverted 15,000 metric tons of rice to the World Food Program for immediate distribution to survivors. Other supplies are en route to the countries.

KEYS AND BASARIC-KEYS live on Bracken Hill Lane in Potomac. Their three children attend local schools: Hannah, 8, attends Potomac Elementary, Alexander, 8, attends St. Francis Episcopal Day School, and Natasa, 26, attends Montgomery College.

“I think this is a kind of an eye opener to them,” Keys said of his younger children’s reactions to the tsunami. “I think they relate to this disaster more directly because of the number of children killed than some of the other development programs we are involved in.”

The fate of children in the affected countries is one of the most troubling aspects of the disaster.

“In Sri Lanka our staff is working in the school system there and a school reopened this week where out of the 900 students 400 had been killed,” Keys said

“But people are trying to return to some kind of normalcy. I’ve heard reports of people already being supplied with fishing boats again so there is a start to returning to normal activity. … There is hope in the midst of the destruction.”