JTA The Global News Service of the Jewish People
Mapendo and Freedom Now Founders Win Bronfman Prize

Jacob Berkman | June 7, 2010

The founders of two human rights organizations have been named the winners of the 2010 Charles Bronfman Prize, an annual $100,000 award presented to an individual (or team) age 50 or younger engaged in humanitarian work.


The prize committee has announced that this year's winners are Sasha Chanoff, the founder and executive director of Mapendo International, an international relief agency that helps relocate African refugees, and Jared Genser, the founder and president of Freedom Now, a group that provides legal help to international prisoners of conscience. Each will receive $100,000 for their organizations.

Named for the Jewish philanthropist Charles Bronfman, the prize was established in 2004 by his children to honor his 70th birthday. An internationally recognized committee of panelists engaged in philanthropy and human rights work -- that includes a Canadian Supreme Court Justice and a former head of the World Bank -- awards the prize following a nomination and voting process.

It marked the first time the committee has named two winners in the same year.

"It was a very interesting debate by our board of judges because we were very divided," said Bronfman's son, Stephen. "But they were both in the same field. So my sister Ellen said, 'What about doing two prizes this year?' I said, 'Why not?' We run this prize and there is no set [rule]. We had two great candidates here, and it does a lot for them and does a lot for us."

Stephen Bronfman and his wife, Claudine Blondin Bronfman; his sister, Ellen Bronfman Hauptman; and her husband, Andrew Hauptman, established a foundation to fund the award.

The prize is aimed at bringing public recognition to young, dynamic humanitarians whose Jewish values infuse their humanitarian accomplishments and provide inspiration to future generations, as well as exemplifying Charles Bronfman's ideals as a philanthropist.

"We look for people who are making a difference in the world, who are doing things, who are passionate about something," Stephen Bronfman said. "We can help them with the contacts the Bronfman family has, and they can help us by elevating the idea."

Through Mapendo, Chanoff has established a network of volunteers and professionals who scout Africa looking for at-risk refugees of war and tribal conflict and then helps get them into the refugee resettlement programs of other governments, primarily in the United States.

Genser's organization, Freedom Now, has a team of volunteer lawyers, including himself, that defends those who have been imprisoned by oppressive governments because of their political views. Among those Freedom Now has supported is Nyi Nyi Aung, who was sentenced to three years of hard labor in a Burmese prison for promoting democracy.

Chanoff and Genser both do their work far from the mainstream of Jewish life. Still, both say that their Jewish ideals play heavily into their nonsectarian humanitarian work.

Chanoff first became involved in working with refugees in the late 1990s while with the Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, an affiliate of HIAS-the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. The JVS helped a number of refugees from places like Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq resettle in Boston through the U.S. resettlement program, which allows as many as 80,000 refugees to move to the United States each year.

Working with those immigrants led Chanoff to move to Kenya, where he worked at the Akume refugee camp and saw firsthand the danger that some -- especially women and children -- face living in such supposedly safe havens from war.

He started Mapendo in 2004 by setting up a medical clinic with a Kenyan doctor to help refugees in Nairobi. The group now has a staff of 30 -- five in Boston where it is headquartered, and 25 stationed around Africa -- and has helped some 10,000 refugees resettle in safer countries over the past six years.

Chanoff recalls the stories his great-aunt used to tell him about marauders who would attack her Jewish village in Kiev, Ukraine, and the story of their escape to the United States.

"There is something very visceral about seeing people who have lost their homes, their families and sometimes everything that means anything to them in their lives," Chanoff said. "This just struck me as something I was supposed to be doing. It connected me to my past and to my great-grandparents and my grandmother and my family."

With the help of 10 law firms, Genser has helped free 10 prisoners of conscience since founding Freedom Now. While also managing to hold down a day job, he has lobbied the United Nations Human Rights Council, created public relations events, defended prisoners and ultimately tried to get the authoritarian governments to reform.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Noble Peace Prize winner, sits on Freedom Now's board, as do two rabbis -- Jamie Cowland and Danny Schonbuch -- who Genser describes as close advisers and mentors.

Genser said that he did not have Jewish values in mind when he started Freedom Now, but Cowland, a British rabbi who now lives in Israel, and Schonbuch, who Genser met in Israel but now lives in New York, have helped him understand the Jewish values inherent in the work that he is doing.

"When I first got into this, we started talking about this from a Jewish perspective," he said. "To my surprise I found, from a Jewish perspective, this is called 'pidyun shivuim,' the redemption of captives. It is one of the categories of work that can even be performed in violation of the Sabbath."