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Women's Refugee Commission Mourns the Death of Founding Chair Catherine O'Neill


The board and staff of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children expressed their great sadness today on the news of the death of Catherine O’Neill on December 26 after a long illness.

Catherine founded the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children (now Women's Refugee Commission) in 1989, along with Liv Ullmann and other women at the forefront of refugee issues. As founder and chair of the board, she used her passion to attract a large number of prominent women from the media, academia and the humanitarian community to the organization. A tireless advocate, she traveled to refugee settings around the world to listen to refugee women and children to learn firsthand about their needs. On Capitol Hill, at the United Nations, in the pages of major newspapers and on radio and TV, she encouraged decision-makers and humanitarian workers to change policies and practice to ensure that refugee women, children and young people got their due.

By identifying the plight of refugee women and children as the key to the betterment of all refugees, and by linking them with activist women in the United States, Catherine changed forever the dynamics of refugee advocacy. The organization she created 24 years ago has proved uniquely effective in drawing attention to the needs of women, children and youth displaced by war, persecution and natural disasters around the world.

In 1999, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Catherine as director of the UN Information Center in Washington, D.C. She also worked for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Westinghouse Broadcasting, the Foreign Policy Association and the International Herald Tribune.

Catherine was on numerous boards, including the International Rescue Committee, and was a founding member of several organizations. She received myriad awards for her editorial writing and her civic leadership.

Catherine is survived by her husband, journalist Richard Reeves, three children, two step children, one grandchild, three step grandchildren, her sister Mary Anne Garvey and six nieces and nephews. 

Memorial services will be held in Los Angeles and Sag Harbor. We will send additional information as it becomes available.

Her family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Women's Refugee Commission. 

Read obituaries in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

Read a tribute to Catherine by Jurate Kazickas, former vice chair of the board of the Women's Refugee Commission.