Jim Bednar travels the world, hoping to make it a better place

  • Jim Bednar of Wilmot during refugee mission in Jordan along Syria border.

  • Jim Bednar of Wilmot during refugee mission in Jordan along Syria border.

Monitor staff
Published: 6/11/2016 11:54:09 PM

Jim Bednar is not a Donald Trump fan.

The Springfield resident and member of the First Congregational Church of Wilmot has built a career on traveling abroad to help refugees. Last week he returned from Jordan, where he worked with those displaced from war-torn Iraq and Syria.

He’s leaving this week for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and after a week there he’s going back to Jordan in September. Tunisia might be on the menu, after Christmas.

Needless to say, a wall separating the United States from Mexico and banning Muslims from this country are not causes he’s behind.

“(Trump) scares me very much,” Bednar, 61, said by phone. “I don’t think he has a real sense of the world, particularly in terms of the foreign policy area and sensitivities and complexities involved.”

If anyone has a real sense of the world, it’s Bednar, whose gentle voice gained a decibel or two only when our conversation turned to Trump. He retired three years ago from the United States Agency For International Development, or USAID.

The acronym says a lot about the organization, and the man, too. It’s one of two U.S. governmental foreign assistance agencies, and Bednar served as a mission director in five countries: Morocco, Zambia, the Czech Republic, Sri Lanka and Ghana.

They are countries that have been ravaged by civil war, war crimes, corruption, and displaced populations, all on a scale as foreign to the United States as the languages their residents speak. Sri Lanka, for example, is the birthplace of the suicide vest.

“There were atrocities on both sides there,” Bednar said, “and only now are they trying to start a war crimes tribunal.”

Bednar coordinated efforts to improve education and health care, train teachers, build schools, establish agricultural systems, introduce emergency systems, provide tents.

“Each country was unique,” Bednar said.

A quick look into his background shows why he is who he is. The signs are everywhere.

His father, Zdenek Bednar of Czechoslovakia, lived through the Nazi occupation during World War II and was studying in the U.S. to be a minister when the 1948 communist takeover occurred in his homeland. Zdenek’s father wrote and told his son to stay in the U.S., making Zdenek a political refugee, and planting the seed for Jim’s life long career of service and selflessness.

The family settled in Bennington, Vt. Zdenek, who died 12 years ago at age 79, would become a minister, working throughout New England.

He retired and moved to the family’s summer home in Springfield, where Jim spent much of his childhood, and where he lives now after retiring himself in 2013. He lives there with his wife, Cune. They have three grown children.

Zdenek, who served as part-time minister at the Church of Wilmot UCC, remains a strong influence in his son’s life.

“We were very close,” Bednar said. “He was a role model for many people, and for me he instilled the idea of service.

“He had strong opinions, but was intellectual, an incredible preacher, very caring, a special person,” Bednar continued. “He was soft spoken, and the only time he raised his voice was when he was preaching. He was very dynamic.”

Bednar never raised his voice during our phone conversation. He also expressed apprehension over being the focal point of my column, emailing me, “Can I get a sense of the article? Many hundreds of people are working in much more difficult situations and longer term than I did.”

On the phone he added a hint of spice when I speculated that he might not be a Trump fan. He mentioned Trump’s idea to build a wall along the Mexican border, saying, “We already have an example of the Berlin Wall, for crying out loud.”

His contrasting view with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee comes from immersing himself in other cultures. Although Bednar officially retired three years ago, he continues to travel, continues to get paid and continues to do things for others. The only difference now is he’s not responsible for personnel evaluations.

“Being retired does not mean being retired in a traditional sense,” Bednar said, quoting a saying he heard recently. “You’re just getting new tires.”

Those tires took him to Amman, Jordan, last month, where about 850,000 refugees reside, most of whom have fled the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A huge majority, about 700,000, live in towns and cities, while only about 150,000 are in camps, many in tents lining the Syrian border.

That, Bednar said, leads to a balancing act that has also surfaced as an issue during the current presidential campaigns: how to help those in need, the refugees, while providing services for your own people.

“There’s pressure put on the health care system, the educational system, the economy, everything,” Bednar said. “It’s a huge strain.”

Bednar said schools in Jordan feature double sessions, with an average of 50 students per class and not enough teachers to handle the load.

“My role was to participate in thinking through how to assess the needs of the people from Jordan and at the same time assess the needs of the refugees,” he said. “When you have to stand in line to get healthcare because there are so many people, compare it to how people would react in the United States. There would be a lot of angry people. Amazingly the Jordanian people are very receptive on taking people in. They have a heritage of doing that.”

In Jordan, Bednar saw Muslims who prayed at sunrise and, at about the same time, he heard church bells ringing.

He’s lived his life believing in this sort of coexistence, this blending of cultures and religions and viewpoints. It’s shaped him, his work and his thoughts on the November election.

“We can learn something from life in Jordan,” he said.




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