Bipartisan Group of Supporters Defend Trump’s Nominee for Key U.N. Refugee Post

Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times columnist praises Isaacs as 'tireless' fighter for all oppressed people, regardless of faith or skin color 

The Kakuma refugee complex in Kenya / Getty Images
• February 17, 2018 5:00 am


A bipartisan group of leading human-rights activists, including a Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times columnist, has jumped to the defense of President Trump's choice to lead the United Nation's International Organization for Migration (IOM), which uses its $1 billion annual budget to promote worldwide cooperation on refugee and trafficking issues.

Trump nominated Ken Isaacs, vice president of the Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse, in January to head the 169-member organization, which holds elections to name a leader but typically defers to United States' choice to run the organization.

Isaacs, who served in the Bush administration as the director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, has spent 30 years organizing large-scale emergency relief programs in some of the most dangerous and desperate places in the world, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Darfur, Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Rwanda.

The day the White House announced his nomination, Isaacs was in Bangladesh administering diphtheria treatment to Muslim-majority Rohingya refugees.

Now, two weeks later, lifetime colleagues and allies in the humanitarian community are furiously trying to save his nomination after an Obama State Department official and a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations accused Isaacs of tweeting anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant statements.

In a Washington Post article, the pair of critics took issue with a number of Isaacs' views, including the belief that the Koran instructs its followers to engage in violent jihad, that Middle East Christians should be given first priority when applying to the U.S. government for refugee status, and that President Obama's policy of accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees was "foolish and delusional" because some of them could become "security risks" if allowed in the United States.

After the article, Isaacs apologized for his "careless" social media posts and vowed to lead the IOM with "the highest standards of humanity, human dignity, and equality," if chosen.

The paper later editorialized against the nomination, arguing Isaacs's views were "venomous," demonstrated "bigotry," and that his leadership in the post would be "an embarrassment to the United States."

Nick Kristof, a self-described "progressive" and two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner and seven-time finalist for international reporting on human rights issues, does not share the Washington Post‘s deep concern about how Isaacs would perform in the role.

Although Kristof acknowledged that he and Isaacs hold vastly different political views, he argued that Isaacs's work on the ground demonstrates his commitment to helping desperate communities regardless of faith or skin color.

"I've known Ken for more than 15 years, and in that period, I've utterly disagreed with him on politics and utterly admired his humanitarianism," Kristof said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon. "He has been tireless in fighting for oppressed and desperate people of every faith and complexion, from Sudan to Iraq, Liberia to Bangladesh."

"Far from being an ideologue in his humanitarian work, Ken is a supreme pragmatist in his work to save lives, willing to work with anyone—even liberal New York Times columnists—to get the job done."

Kristof went on to praise Isaacs's "nonstop travel and networks around the world," which give Isaacs a "good sixth sense about crises just beginning to emerge."

The columnist also gave Isaacs credit for being "way ahead of government" in understanding the desperate need for resources during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and said he was one of the whistleblowers who helped "galvanize" necessary attention even as the World Health Organization was "asleep at the wheel."

Isaacs pressed the United States and Europe in 2014 to recognize the severity of the Ebola outbreak and provide more emergency aid to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

In South Sudan, one of the most difficult and risky places for aid work, Isaacs has overseen a "huge presence there in areas where government has pretty much collapsed," Kristof said.

Supporters point to Isaacs's most recent project as evidence that his work shows no anti-Muslim biases. From last fall through January, Isaacs spearheaded a medical response to provide care to the displaced Rohingya Muslims, victims of ethnic cleansing wounded by gunfire and landmines as they were pushed out of Burma into Bangladesh.

Other advocates argue that State Department critics' attacks boil down to political differences that will have no bearing on how Isaacs will carry out the IOM's mission.

Former representatives Frank Wolf (R., Va.) and Tony Hall (D., Ohio), two human rights champions who have spent decades working on international humanitarian causes, also praised Isaacs's decades of work providing much-needed relief and aid to Muslim-majority populations and war-torn regions throughout the Middle East and Africa.

"I can speak from personal experience that Ken Isaacs is a dedicated humanitarian leader, serving the most vulnerable throughout the world regardless of their religious or ethnic identity," said Wolf, who now serves as a senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, which advocates for religious freedom and human rights around the world.

"When others are fleeing, he is running to the frontlines to aid those who are suffering, and he deserves our support as the nominee for IOM," Wolf said.

Wolf highlighted Issacs's work on the Ebola epidemic and his efforts to work with the Iraqi Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization in 2016 to establish a hospital east of Mosul that has provided trauma and surgical care to more than 4,000 victims of violence.

Even though Samaritan's Purse is a Christian organization, all those treated at that hospital are from a Muslim faith background, even fighters for the Islamic State, said Wolf, who visited the hospital last year.

"Although much of Mosul had technically been liberated from ISIS a month earlier, when I was there in August the staff was still treating victims, including children, who had been wounded by IEDs," Wolf recalled.

"I cannot imagine the countless number of lives that would have been lost had it not been for Ken, the Samaritan's Purse personnel, and the doctors and nurses who came to the aid of those in need," Frank said.

Hall, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times for his work to reduce worldwide hunger and protect human rights, said Isaacs has a "tremendous record" and that he strongly supports his nomination.

"Nothing changes your life like witnessing a child die of starvation," Hall said in a statement. "Serving as a member of Congress and then as ambassador to the World Food Program in Rome, I have seen the devastating impacts of famine, war, and natural disasters. I have also seen humanitarians rush to the frontlines to make a difference. Ken Isaacs is one of those humanitarians."

"I strongly support Ken Isaacs nomination to lead the International Office of Migration, and I look forward to seeing the good he will bring to the world," Hall said.

Isaacs's backers also worry attacks from the left could begin a process of sidelining other Christian relief groups from international forums.

Rep. Robert Pittenger (R., N.C.), who has traveled with Samaritan Purse President Franklin Graham and Isaacs on numerous humanitarian and outreach missions since the 1980s, called Isaacs the "perfect choice" to the lead the IOM and blamed "political correctness" and "Washington parlor games" for the attacks on his reputation.

Isaacs has dedicated his life to serving "the least, the forgotten and the unwanted," he said.

"He has served survivors of the Rwandan genocide, assisted Syrian refugees, and led efforts in dozens of countries, including Liberia, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq," Pittenger said.

"In the 20 years I’ve known Kenny, he has always prioritized the needs of refugees and disaster victims. This is his mission in life. President Trump made a great choice," Pittenger said.

Other humanitarian relief organizations also heaped praise on Isaacs for what they described as faith-blind relief efforts.

Dr. Tom Catena, the medical director of Mother of Mercy Hospital, a Catholic relief organization in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, argued that Isaacs "will do anything or go anywhere to help people in distress."

"I live in a very remote part of the world inhabited exclusively by Africans and a Muslim majority," Catena said. "Ken and his team have been the only ones to provide any degree of humanitarian food aid to this beleaguered population—and he's not doing it solely from a perch in New York or Geneva—but comes here on the ground to see for himself."

Caroline Cox, a member of the British House of Lords and the CEO of Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, testified to Isaacs commitment to provide humanitarian aid "to all in need."

"I have frequently written to commend the professionalism of Samaritan Purse's staff in their commitment to provide unconditional help regardless of religion, race, tribe, color or any other potential criteria for discrimination," she said. "I have the highest regard for Ken and the work of Samaritan's Purse."