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Humanitarian Sheikha Ali (R) and Congolese refugee Mamy Najurama (L) are reunited in New York CIty.

Lives on the line

Refugee advocate Sheikha Ali: ‘They were like shadows, like life had been sucked out of them’

By WITW Staff on October 3, 2016

In 2000, humanitarian workers Sasha Chanoff and Sheikha Ali found themselves faced with a troubling decision. They were involved in a mission to rescue members of Congo’s Tutsi minority, who had been targeted for eradication by the nation’s strong-man president.

The last evacuation flight was set to leave in December of that year, but 112 people had been held back. The regime formally agreed to let them leave — but only them. “The goal was to get those 112 people out,” Chanoff remembers, in a new 10-minute video by Show of ForceAn Impossible Choice.

Deviation from the list risked the entire operation being aborted but, at the last minute, exhausted from interviewing and registering the 112, Chanoff and Ali were directed to a tent that held more than 30 young children and widows. Ali went first, then urged Chanoff to join her and witness the suffering she had encountered. “They were like shadows, like life had been sucked out of them,” Ali remembers. “I was just broken to see human beings reduced to this.”

After agonizing throughout the night, the pair determined they were compelled as humanitarians to attempt to rescue this new group, too. “Sheikha’s bottom line was compassion,” Chanoff recalled in his memoir From Crisis to Calling. “You do everything you can for those in need. You put yourself on the line for them. You do not give up no matter what, even if it means you yourself might go down with the ship.

“Many of us may be faced with situations where we will come into contact with refugees or people who are displaced, and we’ll have decisions to make about that,” says Chanoff in the film, of not only individuals but as nations.

An Impossible Choice also includes footage of an emotional reunion, 16 years later, between Ali and Congolese refugee Mamy Najurama.

All three were profoundly affected by the experience and continue to work in the field. In 2005, Chanoff founded RefugePoint, to assist the world’s most at-risk refugees. Ali continues to work with the International Organization for Migration, who oversaw the Congo mission. Najurama, now a U.S. citizen, continues to advocate for Congolese refugees.

Sheikha Ali on the fateful humanitarian Congo rescue mission.
Sheikha Ali on the fateful humanitarian Congo rescue mission.

From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions, by Sasha Chanoff and David Chanoff, is available now. 


On a torrid Congo mission, rescuers ask: “Are we humanitarians or are we not?”