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Providing a World of Help

callahanTufts graduate Sean Callahan has made a career - and a life - of helping to improve the lives of people all over the world


For a change, Sean Callahan (A '82, F '88) isn't busy. He's not sifting through the aftermath of a hurricane in Nicaragua or raising money for the tsunami relief effort. He's not working with Mother Teresa to feed the Calcutta poor and he isn't helping a young mother and her baby survive a terrorist attack at a Sri Lankan airport.

Callahan has done all those things, but at the moment, he's relaxing. His five-year-old daughter Sahana is nestled comfortably on his lap as he explains how a one-year internship with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) morphed into 17 years of global service that has been anything but the normal nine-to-five.

Callahan makes it sound simple: "After school I felt I had been blessed in many ways by the education I got, and it was time to give something back," he says.

So after graduating from The Fletcher School in 1988 with a master of arts - his undergraduate degree from Tufts was in Spanish - Callahan turned down a job offer from AT&T to intern with CRS, the Baltimore-based international relief and development agency. He was assigned to Costa Rica but rushed to Nicaragua when Hurricane Juana devastated much of the country and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

"I just got hooked on it - the assistance we provided, the wonderful hospitality of the local people, seeing them rebuild their own lives," he recalls. "And then friends who had gone to law school or business school said, 'Geez, at least you can feel proud about what you do and be happy with what you do.' And I realized that it would be difficult to replace that feeling."

Of course, those who know Callahan from his days at Tufts would hardly be surprised at the direction his life has taken. As an undergraduate, Callahan helped raise money for the Jimmy Fund, a charity for children's cancer research and treatment, by organizing a bike ride that culminated in a Tufts night at Fenway Park.

"Sean was charitable, even back then," former Tufts Provost Sol Gittleman remembers. "A lot of kids are charitable in college, but Sean was one of those few who stayed charitable afterwards."

Tufts' commitment to service was a factor that initially drew Callahan to the University. But he says the most influential realizations of his college experience occurred not on the Medford/Somerville campus but when he studied in Barcelona his junior year.

"I think the one thing I learned the most was that the more I thought I knew, the more I didn't know," Callahan reflects. "It's easy when you're here looking overseas to think you can explain everything, but you get to the place and there are all these different perspectives and problems."

Callahan's job has put him in direct contact with those perspectives and problems, but his experience at Tufts - both at the graduate and undergraduate level - left him ready to deal with them.

"The background of Fletcher was very crucial," Callahan notes. "A lot of influential figures in the area at the time had affiliations to Fletcher, so the Fletcher connections gave me access to a lot of areas I might normally not have had access to. It's funny: After graduation, a lot of people say their graduate or undergraduate degrees don't pertain to their work, but my work pertained to both of them."

Escorting hurricane provisions through war zones solidified in Callahan's mind the desire to continue with CRS instead of looking for what his mother teasingly termed "a real job." From Central America, he moved on to do a majority of his work in Asia, including a 1994-96 stint in Eastern India where he worked with Mother Teresa.

"The first time I met her, I said, 'It's wonderful to meet you, thank you so much for the work that you do,' and she said 'Shhh,'" Callahan recalls, his voice quieting with reverence. "'Don't spoil it. We're lucky to be able to do this work.'"

Mother Teresa isn't the only woman he met in Calcutta who made a lasting impression on him: His wife, Piyali, can also make such a claim. The couple was married in Tufts' Goddard Chapel, and in addition to Sahana, they have four-month-old Ryan.

"It was actually nice meeting my wife through my work because this work demands a lot of travel and time away from the family, unfortunately," Callahan says. "So the fact that my wife and daughter and other family members from South Asia could see the work, knew the need for it, and could see the community benefiting really helped out with our relationship as it moved forward."

CRS strives to build communities to the point that they can benefit themselves. To this end, the organization provides microfinancing, health and education services, food and water security, child protection and other services.

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"What CRS does in any community, particularly in the poverty-stricken communities, is find some element that's missing, be it resources or technical expertise or linkage with the outside world, and we try to act merely as a catalyst to help them change and build."

"We want communities to be self-sufficient," Callahan explains. "What CRS does in any community, particularly in the poverty-stricken communities, is find some element that's missing, be it resources or technical expertise or linkage with the outside world, and we try to act merely as a catalyst to help them change and build."

Callahan notes that one of the advantages of this strategy is the ability to react quickly to emergencies. "We were fortunate that we had a long-term relationship in India with over 2,500 local organizations, so when the tsunami hit, we had people out on the ground right away, working with our local partners and the government. We provided emergency assistance, temporary shelter housing, and set up camps," he says. "We purchased food and nonfood commodities for people, and then we introduced a psycho-social aspect - we had counseling for people who had lost family members, children."

Even in emergency scenarios like that, "you can build their capacity to deal with these types of things, even as you help them get out of emergency situations," Callahan says. "We try to take people from an emergency to development continuum."

It is in pursuit of these goals that Callahan has traveled to locales as wide-ranging as Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Ghana, Liberia, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Pakistan, Panama, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Along the way, he has seen the devastation produced by natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and droughts.

"And the most difficult thing of all," he laments, "are the complicated and complex man-made emergencies" such as Darfur, where Callahan and CRS representatives camped out recently.

With humanitarian work in unstable areas such as Sudan, there is always the risk of encountering danger, and Callahan has experienced his share of close calls.

In one instance, he was waiting for an early morning flight at Sri Lanka's only international airport when it was hit by a suicide attack from the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan antigovernment organization. Amidst the chaos, Callahan came to the aid of a young woman and her baby who had been deserted by their airport authorities escorts. Callahan remembers her pleading, "Don't leave me! Don't leave me!" They spent the night huddled on the ground behind an outpost building, the infant wrapped in Callahan's sports jacket. Overhead, tracer bullets flew through the pouring rain and the sounds of explosions burst out into the night.

Nowadays, Callahan tends to find himself in less harrowing circumstances. As CRS' vice president of overseas operations, a position he has held since last year, Callahan's work involves a little less travel and a little less risk. However, he still travels about one week out of the month, saying that "As long as I can get out in the field and get the boots a little dirty, I feel OK."

And just because he's at a desk doesn't mean that his job is any less hectic. After the tsunamis, for instance, Callahan had to decide how to divide millions of dollars of relief money that came pouring in.

"This job focuses more on policy making, investment decisions, allocation of budget, human resources work, trying to focus attention on what we see as huge priority issues," says Callahan, who in June appeared before a congressional subcommittee to push for more money for food aid programs in Africa and Asia. "It's more media work, more fundraising, more paying attention to our domestic constituency."

And in its own way, trying to raise money from Americans for little-known causes on the other side of the globe can be just as trying as promoting education in rural Afghani villages.

"It is difficult," Callahan says. "There's always the primacy of the domestic: 'my family, my location.' Oftentimes, we're inward-looking people."

However, he notes, "People want to give. But maybe they don't know how, or they don't know if their money is going to be used right. So what we try to do is make sure they better understand how we use their resources, and then invite them to come see our projects and results

"We try to do things that connect people, "he adds. "We find that if you can link people it's very, very effective, and if they get overseas they start making that tie and it impacts them strongly and they stay connected. The difficulty is initially linking them."

For Callahan, that link formed early on, and it has stuck. He credits the inspiration of those he has met along the way. And he isn't just talking about the Mother Teresas of the world.

"You really felt enriched by the different communities and the strength people have," he marvels. "People who are in these difficult conditions are probably stronger and more creative than I am or would be. I mean, to survive in a hyper inflation atmosphere - I think it was 58,000 percent inflation when I lived in Nicaragua in the old days . . . I don't know if I could get by trying to sell eggs. Or after the tsunami, [seeing] people who recovered after losing three children and a spouse and their fishing boat, and they're trying to pull things together with the child they have left. It's incredible to see the resiliency of people. It actually gives you a lot of great hope."


Profile written by Ben Hoffman, Class of 2006

Ben Hoffman, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is an English major and communications and media studies minor. Ben has been a sports editor at the Tufts Daily for the past two years, and last fall he served as the head of the sports department. He also interned for the Boston Globe in the fall before studying abroad in Prague in the spring.

Homepage photo by Melody Ko, University Photographer. Story page photo of Sean Callahan by Joanie Tobin. Field photos courtesy of Catholic Relief Services.