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Germany

Rupert Neudeck, refugee advocate, dead at 77

He was at home in many places around the world, especially where there was suffering. Rupert Neudeck, co-founder of the humanitarian group Cap Anamur and head of the Green Helmets, died Tuesday at the age of 77.

It was during one of the many Yugoslavian wars in the mid-1990s that I had a chance to meet Rupert Neudeck privately at his modest townhouse in Troisdorf, between Cologne and Bonn. Our discussion centered on a big fundraising campaign for Mostar, the city in Bosnia-Herzegovina that was paying a high price for its multi-ethnicity.

Neudeck, a professional when it came to helping others, offered tips, while alternately making phone calls to staff working for his organization in Africa, and searching for documents, both on and under the sofa. His open-plan kitchen served as the command post for what was likely the smallest aid organization in the world. From his house in the German countryside, he planned his activities over decades. Christel, his wife, was always involved. In between the ironing and washing up, she coordinated missions abroad, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

Always there, where it hurts

Deutschland Stuttgart Christel und Rupert Neudeck

Rupert Neudeck with his wife, Christel

For Christel and Rupert Neudeck, the parents of three children, there was seldom any separation between their private lives and their working lives. Their work was like a calling. Neudeck, a passionate journalist, burned the candle at both ends. He worked as a feature reporter for Deutschlandfunk, Germany's national news broadcaster. He would regularly read the long scripts in the plane while flying to or from a crisis region. He was always there, where it hurt. Often, he was the first, sometimes he was the only one. He found himself with the Kurds in muddy Anatolia in the middle of winter, or under fire somewhere in Bosnia. The small man with the sailor's beard and the piercing eyes was a giant when it came to morality in Germany.

No naive Samaritan

At the end of the 1970s, Neudeck made headlines around the world when he used the converted freighter "Cap Anamur" to rescue more than 11,000 Vietnamese refugees from drowning in the South China Sea. He didn't want to stand by and watch the disaster that was unfolding, nor did he want to wait for the slow apparatus of international humanitarian aid to start moving. He wanted to help immediately, for moral reasons. He didn't have much money, but once he brought future Nobel-prize winning German author Heinrich Böll on board, he quickly tapped into the system of permanent private donations that enabled his emergency aid organization to help others worldwide.

Never be a coward

His life was a search marked by course corrections, and many happy moments of discovery. Neudeck was born in 1939 in Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland), and narrowly escaped almost certain death in 1945. His family wanted to flee the encroaching Red Army by boarding the German military transport ship "Wilhelm Gustloff." But they missed the ship, and so were not among those who drowned when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea.

Neudeck studied philosophy, German, sociology and Catholic theology, but abandoned his studies in 1961 to enter the Jesuit order. Eventually he left the order to finish his studies. He wrote his thesis on the political ethics in the work of Sartre and Camus, and became a journalist. It was Jean-Paul Sartre, shortly before his death, who told Neudeck that you can "only live your authentic life by acting for others."

Decades later, Neudeck summarized his restlessness by saying that he "never wanted to be a coward." Cap Anamur, he said, was the "best result of the German longing to never again be cowardly, but rather always be brave" - that's how he explained his drive to be the one to help when states and official aid organizations were too slow, too hesitant, or too reluctant to get involved.

In 1994, he experienced the political cynicism of the so-called First World while in Rwanda. French soldiers evacuated white people by airlift, while the genocide among the local population continued. He was not afraid to speak the uncomfortable truths. He may have been headstrong, but he was always helpful.

At the age of 77, he has died much too soon. We Germans could have used his help as an observer and a critic while facing the challenge of integrating more than a million refugees in Germany. "Great things can only happen in an atmosphere of optimism," he said last year as thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis arrived in Germany.

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