Refugee aid advocate Sheppie Abramowitz dies at 88

Sheppie Abramowitz, a seasoned political insider who became a powerful ally for refugees around the world, died April 7 in Washington. He was 88 years old.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Michael Abramowitz, who said his mother died at Sibley Memorial Hospital, due to an infection and an aortic aneurysm.

For more than five decades, Abramowitz has been active in movements to resolve refugee crises – in Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and Kosovo. With a steady, persuasive and unusually effective hand, she used her intimate knowledge of government officials, logistics and the struggles of those fleeing war and oppressive governments to secure real relief.

She was the wife of a diplomat — her husband, Morton I. Abramowitz, was a U.S. ambassador — and became his humanitarian assistant, putting her knowledge to use when they returned to Washington from abroad.

She opened a Washington office for the International Rescue Committee, one of the world's leading refugee aid organizations, and became its vice president. Even before that, she had long been a passionate voice for refugees, volunteering for the IRC while her husband was posted to Hong Kong in the 1960s.

“Sheppie Abramowitz has been an inspiration for generations,” David Miliband, president and chief executive of the IRC, said on social media.

In 1979, she traveled to the Thailand-Cambodia border to visit refugee camps for Khmer Rouge victims, an experience that former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who had accompanied her as a college student, described as “heartbreaking and shocking” in a recent email to his son. Her husband played a key role in persuading the Thai government to accept Cambodian refugees during his tenure as ambassador from 1978 to 1981.

Over the next decade, Ms. Abramowitz became the nongovernmental organization coordinator for the Office of Refugee Programs at the U.S. Department of State, a role in which she became “a tireless cheerleader” for refugees, Gene Dewey , the former assistant secretary of state for the Office of Population, Refugees and Migration, wrote in an email to his son.

She joined the IRC in 1991. In 1999 Migration World magazine described her in a headline as a “crusade for refugees.” In an interview with the magazine, you spoke about the needs of Kosovo Albanian refugees, highlighting the importance of security, housing, sanitation and water projects, as well as community medical care.

The publication called her “among a handful of officials who truly understand refugee issues at the field level and who can leverage that knowledge to help implement policy.”

He added that Ms. Abramowitz used “a Rolodex full of phone numbers of diplomats, administrative workers, senior officials and contacts of humanitarian organizations” to help refugees and navigate the troublesome maze of government bureaucracy.

The plight of refugees “is a passion for both of us,” Ms. Abramowitz told the magazine, referring to her husband.

“His defining role was to try to bend the American political system toward a more moral and humanitarian approach to refugee problems,” Geithner said in an interview.

Ms. Abramowitz was unapologetic about using her insider status on behalf of refugees, telling the New York Times in 1999: “I'm shamelessly squeezing people I know in the administration.”

Sheppie (Glass) Abramowitz was born in Baltimore, December 17, 1935, the daughter of Benjamin and Ida (Gouline) Glass. Her father ran a record store downtown and her mother was the librarian at a high school, Baltimore City College. She was also a volunteer helping resettle World War II refugees, a passion that inspired her daughter.

Sheppie attended the Park School in Baltimore and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1957 with a degree in history. The following year she went to work for Representative Frank Coffin of Maine, a liberal Democrat, and married Mr. Abramowitz, who then worked for the State Department, in 1959. Soon after, Mr. Abramowitz was sent to Taipei, Taiwan, where they lived until 1963.

She later worked for Senator Edmund Muskie, Democrat of Maine, during his 1972 presidential campaign, a fact that was later disputed against her husband by Republicans who successfully blocked President Ronald Reagan's attempt to appoint him ambassador to Indonesia in 1982.

While working at the State Department's refugee bureau in the 1980s, he played a key role in ensuring that the federal government accepted as fact a controversial report on the bloody right-wing guerrilla group RENAMO in Mozambique, something that “would never happened” without his intervention, the report's author, Robert Gersony, said in a message to his son.

In 1994, when Gersony wrote a report pointing the finger at President Paul Kagame of Rwanda for his regime's massacre of thousands of Hutus following the anti-Tutsi genocide, “Only Sheppie defended me,” Gersony wrote.

Ms. Abramowitz retired from the IRC in 2009.

In addition to her husband and son, Mrs. Abramowitz is survived by her daughter Rachel; her brother, Philip Glass, the composer; and three grandchildren.

In his eulogy for her, her son recalled both Ms. Abramowitz's strength and reach. The IRC received a report that a wedding party in Afghanistan had been strafed by American aircraft. A colleague suggested filing a report with the Pentagon.

“But Sheppie didn't want any of that,” he said. “She gave Mark”—the IRC colleague—“the cell phone number of the deputy secretary of Defense who she had just seen at a party the night before and said, 'Tell him.'”

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