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06 Feb

Stories from the Past: Craig Cohen (RAP ’95, Hart Fellow ’96 ’97)

Craig Cohen

Program: Refugee Action Project, Hart Fellows Program

Community Partner: Refugee Action Project; Save the Children; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Location: Lijubljana, Slovenia; Rwanda and Malawi; Geneva, Switzerland

Year: 1995, 1996, 1997

The stories that change our trajectories

I came to Duke wanting to do something international, maybe history or political science. I took a seminar course my freshman year with Bob Korstad called “Contemporary Issues in Public Policy.” Every week we wrote op-eds and debated the positions we were taking. It was a terrific class—not only did it sharpen your thinking and make you a better writer, it also made you more aware about what was happening in the world. So Bob certainly had a role in shaping my early journey with Hart.

Since I was taking classes in public policy, I eventually took an internship in DC. I was working with an NGO that focused on refugee issues, but I got sick and had to leave early. But, in order to finish the internship requirement, I had to write a research paper. Someone suggested that I speak with Professor Claudia Koonz because she worked on refugee issues. I went to her and told her who I was and what I was doing, and I remember she said to me “well you don’t want to go to the library and write a research paper. You want to go interview real refugees about their experiences”.

At the time, that was the last thing I wanted to do. To come out of the comfort zone of being on campus and doing research in the library—all the things that you know how to do and that you’re trained to do—and instead go into the lives of refugees and ask real questions was terrifying. But as I started talking to more people—learning more about what oral history was, and seeing how it could connect to policy—I started to get really excited.

The war in Bosnia was still going on at that time, which was something I had focused on in my class with Bob Korstad, so I reached out through some local resettlement agencies and found that there were Bosnian refugee families living in Durham. I ended up having the chance to spend time with these families and to put together stories about their experiences.

It was an incredibly powerful experience for me. I was a 19 or 20 year old, which is the age where you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your life. But, at the same time, I was spending time with these families, hearing from people that had had their trajectories diverted by war and now had to make a new life in America. For me, listening those stories really changed the direction I wanted to take my career: I started to feel that I really did want to go overseas.

Because of the experiences I’d had with Hart, I was given the opportunity the summer after my senior year to travel to the former Yugoslavia with the Refugee Action Project. This was very soon after the Dayton Accords were reached [which ended the Bosnian War], but we—a group of Duke students and I—traveled through Bosnia, Mostar, Sarajevo, visiting with people who had been affected by the war. It was a pretty unbelievable experience. I remember, in Mostar, we visited with a woman whose house had been bombed and completely destroyed. But, even as she was showing us the destruction of her house, she kept telling us that she wanted to give us something to take away—even though she had nothing—because her culture was about hospitality. Then, there was traveling through Sarajevo and seeing how people had basically been living underground for the extent of the war. But now, they were finally re-emerging, uncertain of what the future would bring.

After my time in Yugoslavia, I basically went straight to Rwanda to work for Save the Children. I worked in Rwanda for nine months, and it was really a turning point in my life—where you’ve sort of envisioned yourself doing certain things and following certain paths, but then you have an experience that completely changes that. The person I was sent there to work for left on my fifth day because he took another job, so the office didn’t quite know what to do with me. I was trying to adjust to a new place and figure out how I could be constructive, even though I had no idea what that was supposed to look like. But above all, it had only been a year and a half, two years since the genocide, which meant that I was living in a society that was still in a complete state of shock, trying to recover from this horrible tragedy.

I ended up doing work with another Duke student there, a photographer named Noah Hendler. We decided to focus on children who had been orphaned from the genocide but were still living as families—where the thirteen- and fourteen-olds were serving as primary care givers for their younger siblings. We wanted to show what their lives were like to the policy community to communicate what they needed and how assistance could be most useful to them, so we traveled around the country, documenting their experiences.


Noah Hendler’s photos of orphaned children in Rwanda.

After that, Noah and I traveled to Malawi to do a similar project, this time documenting the lives of children orphaned not by war, but by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I still remember how unbelievably strong those kids were, which is maybe not as intuitive as you would think.

Looking back, it was a really incredible year and a half, and it’s shaped me personally in so many ways. First I think of the professors: from Bob, to Claudia, to Kirk, to Alma—all of those folks are just such great mentors. Then there’s the people I met through the program. I think Hart attracts students who are very special and unique, and they’re people that I’ve stayed closely connected to, even twenty years later. Finally, I think of the experiences I had. I never would’ve ended up working at a think tank that works on international issues had it not been for the experiences I had with Hart. But I think that’s because Hart experiences are meant to be transformative. At least they certainly were for me.

Craig Cohen (’96) is the Executive Vice President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bipartisan think tank focused on international policy, defense, and security. He currently resides in the D.C. area.


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