She Was Always Pushing for Women

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2004
June 15th, 2007
Whether she was dodging land mines in Angola, lobbying on capitol Hill, or advocating before the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Mary Diaz was a voice for an often-forgotten group: refugee women and children. The executive director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children since 1994, Diaz died on February 12 of pancreatic cancer. She lived in New York City.

At the commission, which is a nongovernmental volunteer organization founded by the actress Liv Ullman, Diaz spent most of her time in the United States, pressing the U.N., lawmakers, and relief agencies to improve conditions for refugees. But once or twice a year, she also went on fact-finding missions to some of the world’s most dangerous places: the Balkans, Haiti, and Afghanistan, to name a few.

“My job is to find out if women are getting enough food, medical supplies, schooling,” she told the BAM in 1997, noting that on a trip to Angola, where the land mines made her feel that death was a mere step away, the men had assumed she was there to talk to them. “Most refugee women don’t receive basic reproductive health care and supplies, from sanitary napkins to information on family planning,” she said. “Men can’t tell us about this.”

Under Diaz’s leadership the commission’s budget increased from $450,000 to more than $4 million, and the size of the staff from four to twenty. Her lobbying efforts often paid off, says Diana Quick, director of communications for the commission. She says that Diaz was instrumental, for example, in convincing President Bill Clinton to set up the Bosnia Women’s Initiative in the mid-1990s to help women rebuild their lives upon returning to Bosnia after the war. “She was always, always pushing and not letting go,” Quick says.

Diaz began her career as a news writer for a television station in Philadelphia, where she was active in helping refugees settle. She later served as director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities in Boston.

She is survived by her partner, Tom Ferguson ’80, 334 Riverside Dr., #2, New York City 10025; her mother, Bertha; two sisters, including Theresa ’86; and two brothers, Joseph ’96 MD and Philip ’81.

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May / June 2004