His compassion knew no boundaries
John Thomas was born in north Minneapolis in 1907, his mother was a Swedish immigrant and his father was the son of a slave. "His early world," writes nominator Mick Caouette, "was filled with people who were integrated by the boundaries of segregation--immigrant families with names like Piazza, Finkelstein, and Johnson. His early world consisted of streetcars, gaslights, and outdoor bathrooms in subzero weather. He was poor but hardly knew it."
Thomas served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he joined the newly formed United Nations' massive effort to rebuild Europe. He arrived in Germany in 1945. "I was shocked to see that everything I had heard was true," he later said of his visits to internment camps and devastated communities. It was in Germany that Thomas first helped create systems for providing international relief. Along with workers from European countries, he ran displaced-persons camps throughout Germany and relocated thousands of people.
In 1956, Thomas was called to the Austrian-Hungarian border during a Russian invasion. Wading in waist-high water with Russian soldiers close at hand, he helped 200,000 Hungarian refugees cross the border into Austria to safety, one at a time. In 1963, President John Kennedy appointed him director of the Cuban Refugee Program, resulting in the resettlement of 30,000 Cuban families. Three years later, President Lyndon Johnson named him director of the U.S. Vietnam Refugee Program. Thomas settled nearly five million people before and after the 1968 Tet Offensive.
In 1969, John Thomas became the first African American to head an international organization--the International Committee for European Migration, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. As director, he came to the aid of the two million Ugandans who were forced to flee by the regime of Idi Amin and was involved in every major world refugee flow until his retirement in 1978.
John Thomas died in New York City in 2002. At his memorial service in Minneapolis, Mick Caouette spoke: "It is estimated that the kid from the north side, who had limited opportunities but never acknowledged his own limitations, helped to save as many as six million people during the forty years of the Cold War. In the words of his friend, Senator Ted Kennedy, 'You have embraced the cares of the world's deprived and dispossessed as your own. Your compassionate commitment will always be an inspiration to us all.'"
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