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Farshad Rastegar: Lending a Helping Hand to Thousands Across the World

By Mahasti Afshar, Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA)


Dr. Pamela Ogor, a family practitioner from Milwaukee, WI, and an associate, treating baby Cecil Frederick.
Photo: Farshad Rastegar
Los Angeles, CA - In the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes that struck Haiti and Chile recently, much of the world's attention has been focused on how relief and support can be provided to the victims of these natural disasters. Central to this mission are international aid agencies whose primary purpose is to provide crucial supplies and services when no-one else can. Enter Iranian American Farshad Rastegar, founder of the international aid organization, Relief International. Established nearly 20 years ago, RI is a non-profit agency that provides emergency relief, rehabilitation, development assistance, and program services to vulnerable communities in over 20 countries worldwide.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Farshad Rastegar to learn more about him, Relief International, and the role Iranian Americans have played in the organization.

Afshar: Tell us about Relief International, its mission, scope, and organization.

Rastegar: Relief International was founded on June 20th 1990 initially in response to the earthquake in Roudbar, Iran that killed some 50,000 people. When we registered the organization as a non-profit a month later, we did so with the universal mission of assisting natural and man-made disaster victims globally and with a view towards bridging from relief to development. At the time transitioning relief to development was a very novel idea because relief efforts were seen as merely charity. Today the idea of "developmental relief" is much more acceptable and is rather the yardstick organizations are measured against. We are still working with communities impacted by the earthquake in Bam in Iran; but we are also one of the major NGOs in places such as Darfur and Haiti.

Afshar: How did you first get involved with RI?

Rastegar: Right after the earthquake in Roudbar, many Iranian Americans had started community based efforts to collect food, medicine, and other supplies. I received a call from a friend to help in a warehouse that an Iranian American businessman had donated. I was already busy at home calling pharmaceutical companies to obtain medicine and also calling airlines to get free cargo space. So I agreed to go volunteer for only two hours since I wanted to get back to the calls. That turned into twenty years.

Afshar: Where has RI had most impact to date?

Rastegar: That is hard to say. We are in thousands of communities globally. For example, as one of the few NGOs in Darfur for the past five years in a row we have been caring for 250,000 people, literally keeping people safe and alive. At the same time our doctors are saving lives in Haiti, others are helping feed tens of thousands of malnourished children in Niger, while others are helping hundreds of families in Indonesia rebuild their homes that were destroyed in the earthquake. So it is hard to say if any one of these is more of an impact than another. Each life is sacred. Each vulnerable community helped is deserving.

Also I would say that among the Iranian-American community we have had a particular impact on how our community engages in philanthropy. We have moved the compass from a traditional concept of charity based on handouts to the poor to one of empowering communities in need. To bring the message home consider for example that Relief International is able to match $20 in Federal funding for every dollar that is donated privately. This means that as an institution we can further the philanthropic and public interests of our community twenty-fold. In essence we are multiplying the impact and the voice of our community in public affairs in a very practical way.

Afshar: Have other Iranian Americans been involved with RI? If so, in what capacity?

Rastegar: Of course. Our very first 10 Board of Directors were all Iranian Americans. These were all people who had helped with the Roudbar earthquake in one way or another but had no connection to each other otherwise. Over the past twenty years, the make up has changed. Until 2009 we had two Iranian Americans on the Board. This year we have none at the moment but would love for some in the community to step forward. There are also several staff members who are Iranian Americans. As an equal opportunity employer we do not selectively recruit by ethnicity. But with a global staff and volunteer of 1,500 of course it is natural to have some Iranian Americans or Iranians from other countries. For me of course it is very gratifying to have younger people from our community get involved in this work, many of whom join us as interns in our offices in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco. And of course the Iranian-American community remains our largest private donor base, a fact that we are very proud of and that has allowed us to serve our community well I believe.

Afshar: Thank you, Mr. Rastegar for sharing your time with us. Needless to say, you make us proud!

To learn more about Relief International, please visit:

... Payvand News - 03/12/10 ... --

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