International Rescue Committee (IRC)

IRC and Planet Aid Donations Help Refugees Rebuild Their Lives

By Emily Sernaker 

Last summer, the International Rescue Committee in Silver Spring and Planet Aid began a partnership to help refugees new to Montgomery County. Today, the partnership benefits thousands of people in the Suburban Washington Resettlement Center, giving survivors of war, persecution and natural disaster the quality donations they need to rebuild their lives.

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Planet Aid began its work in 1996. The organization started off with a simple idea: poverty does not exist because there is not enough in the world, but rather because the resources that do exist are not well distributed. In the United States alone, 250 million tons of waste are generated each year, with only 86 million recovered. The remaining164 million will go to a landfill or incinerator. Items that could easily help vulnerable demographics by being recycled were instead having negative social and environmental repercussions.

In addition to seeing the need for donations, Planet Aid’s founders realized that Americans needed an easy way to donate their used items. They believed that community members would give generously to those in need, especially if there was an easy, reliable process in place. As a result, Planet Aid became specialized in setting up community donation bins and organizing regular donation pick-ups. Their bright yellow bins can be found in 14 U.S. cities, including Washington DC and Silver Spring.  

The way Planet Aid organizes their donations is two-fold. In some cases, goods from the bins are repackaged and sold. The money generated is then invested in a number of international NGOs, focusing on environmental sustainability, education, poverty alleviation, economic empowerment, and more. In other cases, donations go directly from the bins to local NGOs in need of donations. In Silver Spring, Planet Aid’s clothing donations go directly from local bins to the International Rescue Committee’s resettlement office.

The partnership between Planet Aid and the International Rescue Committee was a natural fit.  Both organizations share core principles of poverty alleviation, sustainability and empowerment, with attention to vulnerable demographics. The IRC, which was established at the request of Albert Einstein during WWII, has over 80 years of experience in helping individuals affected by conflict and turmoil. The Silver Spring office alone serves over 1,000 people who, after undergoing significant hardship, have been given permission by the U.S. government to rebuild their lives in the United States.

“The refugees we serve face a challenging journey, even after they arrive in the United States,” explains IRC in Silver Spring Executive Director, David Godsted. “They have very little time to become acclimated, learn English, and most importantly, obtain that first job.  The resources that exist in order to assist in them in this journey are scarce.  The partnership we have with Planet Aid is very important in that each donated item our clients receive represents an item they would otherwise have to purchase with those scarce resources.  That extra income can then be diverted towards other critical expenses, notably rent and child care.”

IRC Resettlement Manager, Augustin Ntabaganyimana, agrees: “When the United States Congress enacted the Refugee Act of 1980, they imagined the program being a public-private partnership, where government would contribute resources with the expectation that local communities would play a role by embracing refugees  and supplementing government funding with support in the form of both monetary and time related donations.  Planet Aid’s partnership perfectly symbolizes the intent of the Refugee Act.  The donations that the organization provides go directly to women, men and children coming from war torn nations as far away as Burma, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and 13 other countries.”

When refugees arrive at Regan National Airport, often having nothing but the clothes on their backs, gifts of clothing or household items are met with sincere gratitude. More than just individual support, refugees know these donations are coming from members of the community. They often see it as a welcoming gesture; an indication that this new place they have come to sees them and wants them to succeed.