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Amed Khan is a Pioneer of "Frontlines Philanthropy"
A new approach to humanitarianism
Amed Khan in Kherson after the flood
Amed Khan has been described as a direct action philanthropist. He goes to the frontlines of humanitarian crises pretty much on his own and uses his personal wealth and networks to deliver whatever the communities say they need. For the past two years, Amed Khan has been in Ukraine near the frontlines of fighting in places like Bakhmut. When we spoke he had just returned from Kherson, which experienced catastrophic flooding following the sabotage of a major dam upstream.
We kick off discussing how he got into this line of work in general, and to Ukraine in particular. As he explains he has a long history in Ukraine, but more recently worked closely with Ukrainian special forces to help rescue Afghans as Kabul fell to the Taliban -- and this of course, was just months before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. We discuss why "frontlines philanthropy" is a unique approach to humanitarianism.
Transcript edited for clarity
What is "Direct Action Philanthropy?"
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:04] So, Ahmed, I've seen you described as a "direct action philanthropist." I have not heard that term before. What does it mean to you?
Amed Khan [00:03:13] Well, it took me by surprise also is a sort of makes sense, though. I think that reflects that I go to places and do the work myself. Philanthropist "means lover of humankind" but in the modern age with unfettered capitalism, philanthropy sort of has turned into Silicon Valley billionaires studying how they can live longer. So I suppose "direct action philanthropist" reflects the projects that I've worked on over the years in Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:49] So I do want to discuss your work in Ukraine, but I'm interested in learning your background. How you became a direct action philanthropist, not your words -- I should say this is not how you have described yourself. But it's how I've seen you described in other media reports. So prior to Ukraine, what was your experience in humanitarian work? How did you get into humanitarianism?
Amed Khan [00:04:14] Shortly after college, I worked on the Clinton for President campaign 92, and after the campaign, I worked at the United States Peace Corps.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:25] As a political appointee?
Amed Khan [00:04:26] A political appointee for the director of the Peace Corps. It was Carol Bellamy at the time, and I spent about a year and a half there also as the White House liaison. And I quickly decided I needed to get out in the world. And by hook or by crook, I convinced people to give me a job at the International Rescue Committee and wound up living on the Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania border, looking after about a million refugees from Rwanda. That was sort of my first time staying overseas. I think I was 23 at the time, and this is pre-Internet with no electricity, no running water. I spent about a year and a half. I sort of loved it. So I only came back because my mom was really worried, you know, was there no phones or anything. So by the time I was 25, I'd already spent a year plus in government, a year plus large international NGO. But I really wanted to sort of do things my way. I had to come up with some strategy to do this.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:22] And what was that strategy? I mean, because, you know, the I.R.C. is like a, prestigious, very well-regarded international humanitarian agency. And the refugee crisis in which you worked on, it was one of the largest in the world. But back then Tanzania was like the host of the largest number of refugees in the world and was for quite a long time after that. So what was the plan for you then?
Amed Khan [00:05:46] Now it was it's a great organization and they all do the best they can. But in my specific circumstance, I thought I was a bit more entrepreneurial. So I figured that I had to sort of make some money at some point if I wanted to do this on my terms, but it wasn't immediate. So I went back into government, actually, then joined another a conservation NGO, and moved back to Africa for another couple of years. But at some point I got into investing. I didn't want to work on Wall Street for some place like Goldman Sachs or something, so I just became a private investor, got lucky a few times, which is really what it is. It's sort of luck
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:28] Eventually made enough money to fund your own philanthropic endeavors?
Amed Khan [00:06:33] Yeah, I mean, I don't have any boats or beach houses or mountain houses or any of that other stuff that a lot of people seem to love. But I think if you want to live a meaningful life and a purposeful life, this is a good thing to do.
Why Philanthropist Amed Khan Began Work in Ukraine
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:49] So you had mentioned working in Syria, in Afghanistan, and most recently you in Ukraine. What were the circumstances in which you first went to Ukraine and what did you seek to do?
Amed Khan [00:07:04] Well, I have a background in Ukraine, So actually in my first trip was in 2005, shortly after President Yushchenko became president, after the Orange Revolution or the colored revolutions. And President Yushchenko had invited former President Clinton at the time to come and give him some advice. So I sort of was invited to tag along on the trip and made some lifelong friends back then and were just remarkably. Taken by the people, the passion, the energy. It was remarkable what they did. They took to the streets. They risked their lives. They lost lives. I mean, basically, they were yearning to breathe free. And I was just so impressed. I've been back, I'd say, almost every year since 2005, trying to help wherever I could. This is a long, long, long project, getting out from under the Russian, then Soviet, then again Russian that have seeked to undermine their fledgling democracy since they became a state, you know, they had people in all government ministries reporting to the Kremlin, not to Kiev. So I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor. Most recently, I was doing evacuations from Kabul for people who had worked for the United States government in August of 2021.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:26] What do you mean, doing evacuations for Kabul?
Amed Khan [00:08:29] Yeah.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:30] We all, of course, remember the August 2021 frantic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and all the accompanying civilians who had been kind of caught up in the maelstrom. What was your sort of distinct role in that period?
Amed Khan [00:08:45] I sponsored the application of two children of a former USAID employee, and she hadn't been able to make it on one of the US Air Force planes. She had the paperwork, so I decided to just go to Kabul myself and try and get her out. She couldn't make it on the planes. And at the time, since I'm in Kabul, I started getting requests from everyone I've ever heard of. You know, you have to help this one. She worked with me at the State Department to help with this one. She worked for the DOJ. And in that process, I got a number of people on the planes, but two little girls, I hadn't been able to get out. So as the US was winding up. Through an old friend. I made contact with President Zelenskyy's office and actually flew to Kiev, I think, August 28th, and then flew back with Ukrainian special forces who were doing evacuations of any Afghan who held a Ukrainian passport, which I found in a remarkable because really not a lot of people were holding their weight. And the experience in Kabul was beyond belief. The actual Ukrainian special forces went into Kabul, which no other groups really did. They were sort of behind the line inside the airport. And I just gave them a list of names, including those kids. And we went and got them and we flew out the kids. then after that, I went on to charter six or seven planes from Kabul during the course of September, October, taking former Afghan women employees, judges, activists.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:10] And so that was your most immediate prior kind of direct action, philanthropic humanitarian work before Ukraine. What were the circumstances in which you first came to Ukraine? Was it presumably after the February 2022 invasion?
Amed Khan [00:10:27] You know, the administration in Kiev had asked me to help if I could make sure people were aware that there was an impending Russian invasion. So during the course of October, November, December of 2021, I tried whatever I could. Obviously, we failed because the invasion happened. And in February, again, it's one of those things a friend is sort of frantic trying to evacuate. And I said, okay, I'm just going to come there and get you out. So I actually drove in February 26th and got the friend out and then started to assist wherever I could. So I suppose since the invasion, I've been inside the country about 400 days and mostly at or near the front lines.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:12] And I know we're speaking while you're in the United States, but just a few days ago, you returned. So you had sent me, I think, photos you had sent from flooded Kherson. But during like the early parts of the conflict, how did you sort of see your role in like the broader international response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine?
Amed Khan [00:11:36] Well, I just was trying to do whatever needed to be done. The truth is, since I've actually been in Ukraine the entire time, I kind of I don't even remember most I'd have to sort of decompress at some point in my life and and write everything down. But the immediate need was evacuations from Mariupol, which was under Russian occupation, and a sort of really brutal occupation. So I found volunteer drivers literally just paid for the gas for them, and they would run this gantlet to a city called Zaporizhzhia where the nuclear power plant is. And it was, interestingly enough, sort of negotiated as a sort of green corridor. But every car that came through had multiple bullet holes from sniper fire. And I was just amazed when they would arrive in Zaporizhzhia how they were actually still alive. And in some people we did lose, but the cars made it through. And I remember the parking lot and the operation of the cars that were coming on these convoys and every single one of them had multiple bullet holes. So that was one of the first things. Shortly thereafter I went to, Bucha, which are probably within two days of its liberation and witnessed mass graves and talked to locals and trying to figure out what they needed and got them immediate supplies. The locals who had survived the occupation and heard their stories and worked with local groups.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:59] And Bucha for those who are not familiar, was a site of really horrendous mass atrocity event and war crimes committed by Russians against Ukrainian civilians. It is one of like the worst war crime event thus far of the entire war. And you're there just in the immediate aftermath.
Amed Khan [00:13:19] You're seeing the pit behind the church was open with bodies before the bodies were exhumed out. So it was literally within 48 hours of liberation. We obviously passing checkpoints and there's still Russian snipers in the woods. And I thought it was important to be there before the masses just to understand what happened there, to talk to the people who survived that, to go to their homes, to see with my own eyes what actually happened there and hear their stories. And as the news came out, I think it was the event that changed even Ukrainians view of how the war should be handled or how the invasion should be handled. I think prior to that information coming out, probably Ukrainians really just wanted to get this war stopped and maybe even we're willing to lose territory. But after what was perpetrated on them there, it's tough to forgive.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:09] Mm hmm. And as you noted, it's also something that makes, I think, Ukrainians reluctant to concede territory in exchange for a cessation of hostilities precisely because of what happened, what they witnessed, of what Russians did in territory occupied by Russian troops. I guess I'm I'm curious to learn how you sort of see your role as distinct from other philanthropies or aid groups or even the government. I mean, it sounds like you are working closely with the government, but you're distinct from the government. How do you sort of distinguish what your unique role is from that of what one might expect from, say, the Ukrainian government?
Amed Khan [00:14:56] You know, I'm in touch with the government and not necessarily work together. What I think I do and what's kind of, I think unique about Ukraine and I would say I've been to 185 countries in the world and probably worked in 60 of them on something that exists in Ukraine. This is a society that can self-organize and solve any problem. And I think that's what the bright future of Ukraine holds. So I sort of just tap in to that society with a little bit of resources and a little bit of knowledge, but they know what needs to be done. And I can give you any number of examples of that. And so most recent would be in the flood ravaged villages after the destruction of the c Dam. The West Bank is controlled by Ukraine, the East bank is controlled by the Russians, occupied by the Russians. So we go into these villages and you meet civilians immediately and they're very clear. We work together and they see what's coming in from various volunteer groups. And again, all the resources and all the supplies are led by essentially volunteer groups. The government is mostly focused on protecting the land and now the counter-offensive, but it doesn't really have the resources to do this. And the large agencies are basically nonexistent. So I just sort of tap in and say, "Look, what have you gotten today that you need today?" And actually the answer today was washing machines -- 50 washing machines. So it can be anything from generators to washing machines or water pumps in the flood situation, power generators. And I think that's sort of what I've done throughout the war in various places. So I probably have about I think the current number is 102 projects, but they all are nothing that I sort of invented or some brilliant idea of mine. They were all sort of self-organized, community driven plans and they're executed by them and sort of partnership with me. But they know what they're doing. And this was, I find this very unique.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:13] Do you have like a staff? Is it just you?
Amed Khan [00:17:16] I have a number of Ukrainian volunteer staff. I pay them all enough to eat and have a place to live.
Can Frontlines Philanthropy as a Humanitarian Model Be Scaled Up?
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:27] Is there a way to systematize this sort of thing, to scale up in a way? The kind of work that you do as one person, an innovative person, a person of like unique set of skill sets, Like you're kind of sui generis it sounds like. But is there a way to sort of expand your work beyond you being one guy doing these very discrete humanitarian initiatives?
Amed Khan [00:17:58] I don't think there is, and I've thought about that. But, you know, you would lose the quality of service, the quality of product, and that's without trashing anyone. That's what happens with the international NGOs. It's sort of like. You know, they have a good person somewhere and there's good work and then they have a bad person somewhere and there's bad work. And I want to make sure that every project that I'm involved with is excellent and executed to the highest level. And it's what I sort of personally can handle. So I don't know that it's really realistic in these sort of circumstances, you know, where if something goes wrong, it's not good, right? It's not something you can recover from and you caused damage. So I don't necessarily know, like I would love other people with means to do this kind of thing, but I don't see jumping into the fray. You know, that would be the easiest thing. I'd love people to say, Hey, I could buy some of this stuff and it happens. I mean, I have a few friends who are saying to me like, "Look, you're there. I'd love to help with something. And you know what? Can I purchase what's needed?" And that's good. But I don't know that I could build this massive organization that would actually meet these needs to the level that I expect them to be met.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:12] So you're back in the States now. Do you plan on returning to Ukraine any time soon? And what's next for you and your work?
Amed Khan [00:19:22] Yeah, I'll be back within a week or so.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:25] Wow. This is a quick trip.
Amed Khan [00:19:26] Yeah, they all are. I never I'm never out for more than 5 to 8 days or so, and I already have a schedule for when I return meeting with the various projects that we support or implement.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:40] What's your plan for when you return to Ukraine? Like, what are your key priorities?
Amed Khan [00:19:46] Continuing with the flood recovery is one. Another one is an orphanage that I repaired after a Russian rocket attack. There's a seven-year-old gymnast that lost a leg and we took care of her prosthetics and I want to visit her. Finding out needs and a couple of other newly liberated villages. So my focus has been trying to help in newly liberated villages because the people have gone without anything. So I have some standard packages, generators and household supplies, clothes that will deliver to newly liberated villages. And these villages are flattened, but some of the people are still there, which is unbelievable. But that's sort of where I'll be. I'll be in the east somewhere, just behind the front.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:34] What compels you to keep going back and keep going to front line humanitarian crisis and frankly, frontlines of the conflict as well.
Amed Khan [00:20:45] It's a very worthwhile way to spend your time. And at this point, I'm so deeply invested in this situation that I have to see it through. I'm so deeply intertwined with so many people at this point, and they're counting on our partnership. So there's no way to turn my back on it. You know, from a larger perspective, I think it's just very important. You know, I don't think it's hyperbole to say, you know, freedom is at stake. The Ukrainian people are people who are kind and gentle and just want to live free and they risk their lives for it. So I just think it's truly the most important thing in my lifetime, I think.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:23] Do you have enough money to keep on operating at the kind of level at which you're operating for the foreseeable future? Are you trying to raise funds as well?
Amed Khan [00:21:33] No, I don't raise money because I like to do stuff that I like to do. And so I use my money. And but, you know, I obviously, I have some friends that join up. I don't ask anybody, but they'll call me all the time and say, well, "how can I help?" So, yeah, no, I'm I'm fine. I'm like anti-consumer, so I don't really own anything or want anything. I'm sure people have like 20 boats and that costs more than any of this stuff because it's not really that expensive. I think I've probably spent about 10 or 15, maybe $20 million, I've gotten donations and donated supplies of a few hundred million, I guess. And it's important stuff. So there's no real turning back on.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:22] I guess part of my motivation for asking that question was that I have to imagine a number of people listening to our conversation are probably inspired by the kind of work you do. How can they help if they want to? And we're not like a general audience. We're kind of policy people who listen to this show. But I have to imagine there are those who just want to help you somehow. What can they do now?
Amed Khan [00:22:47] They can just call me up. I mean, literally, that's what happens. People just call up and say, I'd love to help, you know, sort of Ukrainian civilians survive this devastation. I say, well, you could do this or you could do that. And I'm happy to talk to anyone at any time, really. That's 99% of my day and night. And I think this is the most important thing anyone can do. And the needs, the needs are endless. You know, the government can't meet all the needs and certainly even the entire West can meet all the needs because the devastation is beyond belief. Reconstruction is somewhere around $600 billion at this point. Know I've been to at this point, hundreds or maybe thousands of schools, hospitals, playgrounds, shopping malls, apartment buildings destroyed.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:37] Well, Ahmed, thank you so much for your time and, you know, for the work that you do.
Amed Khan [00:23:42] Thank you, Mark. I really appreciate your time.