A black-and-white photo on the wall of Julia Taft's office commemorates her first taste of refugee work. It shows an American soldier cradling a young refugee fished from the sea in 1975 when Taft, as President Ford's director of an interagency task force, helped oversee the resettlement of more than 130,000 Indochinese who fled in the wake of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
Now, she's getting a taste of refugee work in the aftermath of a victory for the United States and its NATO allies against Yugoslavia. This time, the refugees are returning instead of searching for a new home.
"If we're ever going to get it right, this is it," said Taft, who is assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration and who last month made a 12-day trip to Paris, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia and Geneva. "The resources are there and the spotlight is there."
Taft oversees $200 million from the State Department budget that is devoted to providing humanitarian assistance for victims of the war in Kosovo, ranging from buying doors and windows for damaged homes to providing small loans to widows who want to start businesses. That is just part of a larger picture in which the United Nations, the European Union and 200 non-government organizations are all trying to get the province back on its feet.
The number one priority, Taft says, is to provide shelter for ethnic Albanian Kosovars driven from their homes during the war. She said most of the damage was "pernicious, targeted destruction, done house by house on the ground" by Serb forces.
Overall, however, "the housing situation is not as bad as we had anticipated," she said in an interview. Because the ethnic Albanians usually built with concrete and bricks, most of the damage was done to wooden rooftops, windows and doors, and many of those homes could be repaired relatively quickly, she said. In rural areas, many people are sleeping in tents, which refugee assistance groups hope to equip with stoves.
Another of Taft's concerns is to make sure that money earmarked for Kosovo aid actually is spent in the Balkans. In part, she says, that means making sure the U.N. civilian administration has enough money to get schools, hospitals, police and other services working again. Now, she says, many doctors are working as translators or truck drivers. Although as many as 200,000 people in Kosovo have relied on money from relatives living abroad, Taft says people in Kosovo need jobs.
One challenge for donors, Taft said, will be to include Kosovo residents in aid decisions so that "assistance is not designed by external actors."
Taft says Western donors also should direct some of their reconstruction aid to neighboring parts of the Balkans, such as Macedonia and Bulgaria. Driving through Croatia, she said, "I saw all these dead factories and had all these ideas about what they could make for KFOR."
Taft has worked with refugees for much of her career. She previously had been president of InterAction, a coalition of 156 U.S.-based private, voluntary organizations working on international development, refugee aid and humanitarian relief.
In 1992-93, Taft was a consultant with State's Office of Coordinator/CIS Affairs, where she was responsible for developing projects to assist Russian military families. From 1986 to 1989, she was director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance at the Agency for International Development, where she managed U.S. relief responses to foreign disasters.
The daughter of an Army surgeon, Taft spent 1989 to 1992 in Brussels, where her husband, Washington lawyer William Howard Taft IV, was ambassador to NATO.
Today, Taft testifies before Congress on plans to slightly increase the number of refugees to be admitted to the United States next year from all parts of the world. This year, the United States plans to admit 78,000 refugees. The end of the war has helped keep the forecast low.
Taft said she was surprised at how quickly the ethnic Albanian Kosovars returned to their homes. As of July 16, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated there were only 110,000 refugees left outside Kosovo.
And unlike other refugee situations, Taft said, in Kosovo "people are returning to a place where they will be a majority and a majority in terms of real power."
Title: Assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.
Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees, University of Colorado, Boulder.
Family: Married to William Howard Taft IV; three children.
Previous jobs: White House fellow; deputy assistant secretary, Department of Health, Education and Welfare; director of the President's Interagency Task Force on Indochina Refugees; consultant, State Department; acting U.S. coordinator of refugees, State Department; director, Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, Agency for International Development; chief executive, InterAction.
Hobbies: Reading, going to the opera.