From Einstein to Ahlan Simsim: Celebrating 90 years of innovation at the IRC
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been helping people affected by humanitarian crisis for 90 years. Read about our history, our achievements and our innovative approach to solving big problems
July 24, 2023
Photo: Photo: Ryan Heffernan/Sesame Workshop
Ninety years ago today, Albert Einstein helped found the organization that would become the International Rescue Committee, to support refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Since our inception, we have been dedicated to bringing forth bold, innovative solutions, taking risks, and transforming the humanitarian landscape to help people survive, recover and rebuild their lives.
Below, take a look back with us at some of the major milestones in our work over the last nine decades. See how our work has grown, evolved and continued to transform lives where we are needed most.
"By any and all means": Albert Einstein wanted help refugees fleeing Nazi germany, leading to the creation of the IRC
Photo: Library of Congress
1930s — Albert Einstein and the beginning of the IRC
In a world without the United Nations or refugee law, a small group of humanitarians led by Albert Einstein banded together, vowing to use “any and all means” to help Europeans fleeing persecution to find safety. In July 1933, this group founded the International Relief Association, which would go on to become the International Rescue Committee. Their goal: assist all those of whatever race or opinion who are refugees suffering within Germany under the Nazi regime.
1940s — An American journalist helps refugees "by any means necessary."
In France, Varian Fry, a young journalist from Virginia, fought an uphill battle to support refugees, faced with opposition and limited resources. He and his team at the Emergency Rescue Committee committed to using any means necessary to save lives. They worked tirelessly to exhaust all legal routes of obtaining exit permits and visas for endangered refugees.
The team also set up small businesses in the remote forests of France, where people could live in relative safety from Nazi patrols, and provided cash assistance to people in need.
Did you know?
Q: What Netflix series was inspired by IRC's origin story?
How to Change the World
That's not quite right!
Netflix’s Transatlantic explores the story of how Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) evacuated thousands of refugees from Vichy France during World War II.
The IRC expands its work
1950s — The IRC runs its biggest operation since its inception
When Hungarian protesters were attacked by secret police while marching on parliament square in Budapest, the IRC in Vienna left for Hungary with a truck full of medicine, becoming the first Americans to deliver aid after the attack.
We then began our biggest operation since the organization first assembled. When the Soviet’s Red Army moved into Budapest in November, 200,000 Hungarian refugees fled to Austria where the IRC had reception services prepared.
To meet the needs of displaced Hungarians, the IRC stepped up its presence in other European countries too, opening health centers and shelters for displaced children in Great Britain, Belgium, West Germany and Sweden. And we helped Hungarian refugees resettle in the U.S.
1960s — The IRC launches its first initiative in Africa.
When more than 200,000 Angolan refugees escaped their country’s colonial government and fled to the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, the IRC was ready to assist them to recover.
We worked with refugee doctors to provide medical assistance to Angolans in need, making us one of the first humanitarian aid organizations to integrate local workers and community leaders while delivering support in decolonized Africa.
1970s — Changing the way refugees are welcomed in America
The IRC took a leading role in what became the largest refugee resettlement effort in American history after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. We set up processing centers at government facilities that were turned into refugee camps and worked to find Americans to “sponsor” refugees—a new concept that became invaluable in welcoming and integrating refugees.
When the U.S. government closed its processing centers for these refugees in 1975, the IRC had already opened 16 resettlement offices across the country to help refugees find education and employment opportunities. Almost 50 years later, we operate 28 refugee and asylum integration offices across the U.S. that continue to help resettled refugees thrive in their new communities.
1980s — Establishing the IRC's first mobile health clinics
In 1980, after the Soviet Union invaded Kabul, Afghanistan, around 5 million Afghans were displaced by this conflict. The IRC immediately began to support civilians and soon established several mobile health clinics and medicine dispensary units in Afghanistan to provide care for refugees caught in the crossfire.
Today, our mobile clinics continue to go where others do not, crossing treacherous terrain to reach people living in remote areas with lifesaving health care.
Dr. Najia leads IRC mobile health units that provide health care to Afghanistan’s remote areas, which often lack basic infrastructure.
Photo: Oriane Zerah for the IRC
1990s — Creating unconventional solutions to assist families in war-torn Sarajevo
In Sarajevo, blockaded by the Serbian army from 1992-1996, a small group of IRC staff devised a series of daring programs to support the Sarajevan people.
Braving bombs and sniper fire, the IRC thought on their feet and figured out how to distribute seeds to people so they could grow fruits and vegetables at home. This way, they had the food they needed without risking their lives in the crossfire.
IRC teams also supported major infrastructure projects to restore water and electricity to homes, hiding water pumps and filtration systems in tunnels to protect them from artillery fire.
2000s — Tailoring emergency response when a crisis hits
Our teams are trained to act quickly to help meet both the immediate and long-term needs of crisis-affected people. But every crisis is vastly different.
In the early 2000s, the IRC responded to three major disasters: an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, an earthquake that devastated Pakistan and Hurricane Katrina—the IRC’s first response on U.S. soil.
The IRC recognized that each one needed a tailored response. That’s why we ensure we identify and respond to the individualized needs of people and communities. We do this by integrating local partners and designing our support to complement local systems.
2010s — Empowering communities in the fight against Ebola
In 2014, the IRC quickly responded to the growing Ebola crisis in West Africa. We recognized the need to support health systems and work with community leaders and health care workers to educate people on Ebola’s transmission.
The IRC partnered with the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide training programs in over 1,000 health facilities in Sierra Leone.
“Working directly with local communities and organizations was critical in communicating the risks of the Ebola virus and mobilizing local health workers to end the deadly outbreak in West Africa,” said Bob Kitchen, the IRC’s Vice President of Emergencies and Humanitarian Action.
Delivering essential aid on the front lines of Syria's civil war
In 2012, the IRC began assisting Syrians whose lives have been uprooted by a brutal war.
As the conflict continued, our services grew to not only include emergency aid but also job training, educational opportunities and family reunification services. In 2021, we assisted almost 1.2 million people inside the country.
We were also one of the first organizations to deploy an emergency response team to the Greek island of Lesbos, in order to provide aid to the thousands of Syrian refugees arriving from Turkey. The IRC soon expanded our work to multiple refugee sites on the Greek mainland and in Serbia.
Our most innovative programs yet
Signpost helps people get critical information when crisis strikes
Signpost is equipping people with the knowledge and know-how to solve pressing problems in their journey through a crisis in a way that has never been done before.
The Signpost Project was created in 2015, at a time when hundreds of thousands of refugees were fleeing to Europe. It uses cutting-edge technology to connect crisis-affected people with vital resources, such as health or legal services, through the support of partners like Cisco, Google.org, Microsoft, TripAdvisor, Zendesk and Meta.
In 2022, 4.09 million people engaged with Signpost products directly, and over 21 million individuals came into contact with Signpost content online.
Adriana, 28, women and child protection manager for the IRC in Mexico, shows Maria*, 37, the InfoDigna website (part of the Signpost project), which offers up-to-date information for migrants transiting through Mexico.
Photo: Paul Ratje for the IRC
Launching the Airbel Impact Lab: where research meets innovation
Recognizing the unprecedented need for global humanitarian assistance, the IRC understood that current approaches and the status quo were simply not enough. In 2015, we created the Airbel Impact Lab, a research and innovation teamthat designs, tests and scales life-changing products and services to solve the challenges people face in crisis-affected communities.
Whether it’s using AI to deliver learning in crisis settings, or building climate resilience for the unique needs of communities hit by both conflict and climate change, we create bold solutions for the biggest problems.
A group of artists with Varian Fry (center with glasses) at the Villa Air-Bel outside Marseilles, France, 1941.
Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Back in the 1940s, Varian Fry and his team established the Villa Air-Bel, a secret safe house that helped thousands of people escape to freedom—this is what inspired the Airbel Lab name.
Like all responders of the early International Rescue Committee, Fry had no playbook or standard operating procedure to guide him. He learned by doing, applying ingenious methods, embracing inventive thinking, taking calculated risks, and building on success. This spirit has persisted for 90 years and echoes throughout all of our programs worldwide.
Revolutionizing malnutrition treatment
A young child experiencing extreme hunger receives treatment from an IRC mobile health team in Olol village, Somalia.
Photo: Mustafa Saeed for the IRC
In 2018, the IRC introduced a revolutionary protocol to change the way the world addresses malnutrition. With this simplified protocol, all children with acute malnutrition can be treated with one product, at one location, rather than being made to navigate a complex system that differs based on the severity of their diagnosis.
Malnourished children are treated with ready-to-use highly nutritious nut paste and the IRC is also training parents to use mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) measuring tapes. These simple devices enable parents to screen their children for malnutrition regularly at home.
A recent IRC study, conducted in partnership with the Mali Ministry of Health, treated more than 27,000 children for acute malnutrition with the IRC’s protocol. 92 percent of these children recovered.
Q: Since 2018, how many children under 5 have been treated through our malnutrition work?
Almost a million
More than 1.5 million
That's not quite right!
By 2023, the IRC has already treated 1.5 million children through malnutrition work. The IRC is leading the way with our revolutionary protocol treatment, and is asking world leaders to join us in stepping up to solve the global malnutrition crisis.
The IRC and Ahlan Simsim change more than 1 million lives
Saeed, 5, and his mother, Aisha, 40, fled their home in northwest Syria after bombings threatened their safety. Settling into their new community in another city in Syria was very difficult at first, but Saeed gained important developmental skills including methods for regulating his emotions through participating in the IRC’s Ahlan Simsim program.
The IRC and Sesame Workshop’s Ahlan Simsim initiative is the largest childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response—made possible by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which selected it as the winner of the 2017 100&Change competition and complemented by the LEGO Foundation.
Ahlan Simsim combines the IRC’s expertise of working in communities affected by crisis with the proven impact of Sesame Workshop’s (the organization behind Sesame Street) educational media to deliver a life-changing initiative that provides children in crisis with the support they need to learn, grow and thrive.
Ahlan Simsim programs and services have reached over 1.7 million children and caregivers across Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria with a combination of remote and in-person activities. The Ahlan Simsim show, an Arabic-language version of Sesame Street, has reached more than 23 million children.
Where is the IRC working today?
Today, the IRC continues to respond to crises around the world, including the earthquake in Syria and Turkey, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing drought in East Africa. Our teams across the globe are committed to providing innovative solutions for people, wherever they are.
International Rescue Committee, U.K. is a charitable company limited by guarantee registered in England & Wales | Company number 03458056 | Charity number 1065972 | 100 Wood Street, 6th Floor, London, England, EC2V 7AN