‘Aid is our life's passion!’ | Mission East

‘Aid is our life's passion!’

Armenia, 1994. In the early years of Mission East, René og Kim Hartzner brought aid to Armenia, including an emergency hospital and food aid for the population during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Photo: Jan Jørgensen.
Armenia, 2011. René’s wife, Ruth Hartzner, immediately warmed to the cause and provided great support in establishing Mission East. Here, the couple attends a demonstration for disability rights in Armenia in 2011. Photo: Mission East.
North Korea, 2011. Kim’s medical background is useful when he travels around the world to inspect Mission East projects. Here he visits an orphanage in North Korea. Photo: Mission East.

It started in a garage in the Danish town of Birkerød. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, René and Kim Hartzner sent food, medicine and hospital equipment to poor people in Eastern Europe. Today, Mission East has grown into a quite large aid organisation, specialising in emergency relief and long-term development in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The enthusiasm is undiminished.

By Svend Løbner, freelance journalist

René and Kim Hartzner founded Mission East as a spontaneous reaction to the situation in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. From the family’s garage in Birkerød – and, later, from a larger storage facility - they sent truckloads of food, medicine and hospital equipment. They even flew entire emergency hospitals eastwards on large transport aircraft.

Today, the work has expanded to several countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Thousands of people are benefiting from emergency relief as well as long-term development aid. The family business has become an international aid organisation with offices in Copenhagen, Berlin and Brussels and hundreds of dedicated staff members in eight countries.

Dedicated to the cause

We meet the two committed men at the Mission East office in Hellerup north of Copenhagen. The atmosphere is loaded with the energy that still runs through father and son. When asked where all that energy comes from, Kim Hartzner replied: “It is more than a job. It is a life passion. We just did the things that appealed to us and seemed fun. It was very satisfactory to help the churches behind the Iron Curtain. Churches that had previously been oppressed could now help their own population.”

René Hartzner readily gives credit to the staff that gradually joined the organisation: “We hired some very capable people. And as it often happens, one capable person attracted other capable employees. I had the advantage compared to Kim that I had no children living at home. And my wife Ruth was very dedicated to the cause.”

The two men have been a team since the organisation was founded in November 1991. At the time, René received startup support from the government, and for the first few months, Kim was volunteering. Today, their roles have been switched: Kim is managing director, René is an active senior citizen.

Good Soviet connections

The life project Mission East became a jigsaw puzzle, uniting René’s business acumen and Kim’s medical background.

For nearly 30 years, René Hartzner worked as an international manager in one of the world’s largest grain companies. His job was to buy grain in North and South America, charter ships and export the grain to Denmark and onwards to countries in Eastern Europe. One day he became unemployed, but he still had good contacts in the then Soviet Union. Two travel agencies hired him as a tour leader for religious and cultural trips to Russia.

“On the very first trip we visited a free church on the outskirts of St Petersburg. The local mayor supported the social work of the churches and promised that the church would get a large, partially built centre near one of the metro stations if it could obtain medicine, particularly for elderly patients suffering from diabetes.”

Medicine for two million kroner

”On my way home from St Petersburg, I couldn’t stop thinking: ‘If I could get the medicine, I could help the church and the city.’ I told people at my church about the situation, and one of the church leaders worked in a pharmaceutical company that produces diabetes medicine. Very soon, I had received diabetes medicine in big drums. It was valued at two million Danish kroner. We delivered it on a trip with young people from the Karlslunde Beach Church and got a fantastic reception,” René Hartzner recalled.

“On our way home on the bus I told Kim: ‘This is very time-consuming. Either I must continue doing this full time, or I have to stop now.’ Kim looked at me and said: ‘Dad, you must continue full time, and I am with you from day one.’ That’s how it began.”

Kim Hartzner remembers that day on the bus: “I told dad: ‘You are already working full time with emergency aid; you just need to call it something. How about Mission East? It is a mission in the East, and we are working through the church, aren’t we?’ That settled it as far as the name was concerned.”

Shaky, but great start

Kim is a medical doctor, but dedicated four months to working as a volunteer, contacting companies and asking for donations for the work in the East. Churches collected funds for transportation, companies donated food and medicine, and hospitals donated equipment.

“We stocked our storage facility in mum’s and dad’s garage and took off in vans. Then I moved to Hjørring and started working as a doctor. After five days of work, I had my first holiday to take emergency aid to Ukraine. I had a major accident and returned in an ambulance plane. I was hospitalised in Hjørring, and it took several months before I had worked there for more days than I had been on sick leave or holiday,” Kim Hartzner said with a smile.

“It was a shaky, but fantastic, start,” René Hartzner recalled. “People did not know us; we had just started. But things went like the clappers.”

Five hospitals sent by air and sea

A year after the start – in October 1992 – Mission East sent large aeroplanes with aid from Denmark to Armenia. The small aid organisation had received five of 40 mobile emergency hospitals that were meant to be used during a nuclear war. But now, the Cold War had been cancelled.

“The hospitals were packed into large cardboard boxes in hospital basements and at schools. They had operating theatres and lots of equipment,” René Hartzner recalled. “We gave two of them to the worst imaginable prisons in Moscow, one was sent to St Petersburg, one to Albania and one to Armenia. In those days, Armenia was at war with Azerbaijan. All in all, we sent nine big aeroplanes to Armenia, most of them with food, medicine and hospital equipment.”

Mission East got off to a flying start, but Kim Hartzner’s involvement in Eastern Europe began many years before that. “My father was traveling behind the Iron Curtain as early as 1968. I was nine years old and pestered him to take me along, but of course he didn’t. When he came home, he showed us photographs of persecuted Christians, their faces, scarves and a culture so different from ours. They were suppressed and persecuted but also had tremendous spirit, and they were willing to risk their lives and personal safety. It was madly exciting! Their stories and destinies started it all for me.”

Behind the iron curtain at 15

When Kim was 15, he traveled to Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary with his cousin. “It was a different world behind the Iron Curtain; you felt something heavy, a subdued atmosphere among people,” he said.

“I used every opportunity to travel to Eastern Europe. Later, I smuggled bibles to the churches. I also smuggled out information about the plight of Christians behind the Iron Curtain, where the authorities raided churches and imprisoned church leaders. That was probably the most dangerous bit. Once I was standing in a train station in Romania with some sensitive documents in my pocket. It was the last train station before the Hungarian border. I was so nervous that I couldn’t control myself, and the customs officers could easily have spotted me. But on the train heading towards the border, I shared a compartment with a diplomat’s son from Congo, and he told so many funny jokes in wonderful French that I was laughing my head off all the way. When the customs officers came to search our luggage, I wasn’t nervous anymore. And when they had finished, I managed to place the documents in the already searched suitcase before the officers started a body search. What luck! Or divine intervention…”

Aid from church to church

When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, René and Kim Hartzner both had a strong network among the churches in the East and in the West.

“It seemed completely natural to establish ties between the two networks and organise emergency aid to the poor in the East,” Kim Hartzner said.

“We were based in my house in Birkerød and wrote letters to all our friends asking for support,” Réne Hartzner added. “I also applied for startup support from the municipality and got 5000 kroner per month for three years. We applied for permission to keep medicine in my house, and were allowed to do so. Kim contacted a number of pharmaceutical companies, and you cannot imagine how much hospital equipment, food and medicine we received during that period!”

The pieces fit

Today, Mission East runs a complex operation from offices in Denmark, Berlin and Brussels. Emergency aid for tens of thousands of displaced people in Iraq. Education for children with disabilities in Armenia. Help to achieve self-sufficiency in Tajikistan. Disaster prevention in the mountains of Nepal. Restoration of water systems in Afghanistan. Schooling for Burmese children. And food aid to malnourished children in North Korea.

This brings us back to the life passion: How does one avoid being totally overwhelmed by the enormous needs everywhere?”

“When things look bleak, it is tempting to say: ‘It is so terrible that so many are displaced because of Islamic State!’ You can say that a hundred times without making any difference. But you can also say: ‘We can do something! We can help and change people’s lives!’ The truth is that every Dane can do a lot for every person in need out there.” This is exactly what René and Kim Hartzner, their staff and many supporters in Denmark and abroad have been doing for the past 25 years.

The original Danish language version of this article was published in a special edition of the Mission East magazine to commemorate the organisation's 25-year Jubilee in November 2016.