A life dedicated to children: Joern Ziegler, ChildFund Deutschland CEO and CEO Forum Co-chair

Recently we had the opportunity to sit down with Joern Ziegler, CEO of ChildFund Deutschland (Germany). Joern has been with ChildFund for 17 years, and is a founding member of the Alliance. He is currently co-chair of the CEO Forum, which forms the senior management team of the Alliance. The CEO Forum supports the Secretary General to execute ChildFund Alliance’s strategic plan.

Joern Ziegler has dedicated his life to children. His career has spanned more than 36 years, working with a variety of international and domestic child development and rights organizations. This commitment extends beyond the professional sphere. Together with his wife Susanne, Joern has raised four daughters and a son. They have hosted ten exchange students from around the world. And recently, at an age when many parents are getting ready to end their child-raising years, they have welcomed a new son into their family, having adopted a young refugee from Afghanistan.

 ChildFund Deutschland: Supporting programs around the globe

Joern joined ChildFund Deutschland (Germany) as CEO in 2001. As one of the smaller members of the Alliance, the role of the office was for a long time primarily fundraising. However, under Joern’s leadership the German office has now established program expertise, which is being leveraged to access government grants. The office provides funding and program support to partners in 32 countries, including a number of countries where ChildFund members are no longer active, or have never had a presence.

Several programs are in eastern European countries, which have a shared history with Germany and are geographically close. In 2003, ChildFund Deutschland began working in Ukraine. Since 2014 it has been supporting several local partners that are providing humanitarian emergency response for internally displaced people. (Read Joern’s blog on his visit to Ukraine.)

Joern family web
Joern Ziegler, CEO of ChildFund Deutschland, meets with a family living in a camp for internally displaced people. The camp is supported by the German development agency GIZ (German Corporation for International Cooperation). ChildFund offers activities for the children who are living in very difficult conditions here. © Yellow-Blue Wings

Another program that is close to Joern’s heart is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where ChildFund Deutschland is working with partners in an incredibly isolated area in Kivu. There is no internet, and it takes four or five hours to reach the program area by motorbike.

Some three years ago, ChildFund Deutschland became aware of a group of 54 children in Kaniola who were living under the care of a single woman, Felicity. The children, all born as the result of rape in DRC’s long-running civil war, had been rejected by their families and communities. They were living in an abandoned building, in extremely poor conditions. ChildFund started an emergency program, providing food, shelter and medical care, as well psychosocial support for the children and income-generating work for their parents. Over the course of three years, most of the children have been reintegrated into their families or, in a few cases, into foster families.

Felicity web
Felicity was the sole caregiver for 54 abandoned children in Kaniola, eastern DRC, when ChildFund Deutschland began its program to reintegrate the children with their families.

Present at the birth of the Alliance

As the longest-serving CEO among the Alliance’s 11 members, and the only current CEO who was serving when the Alliance was formed, Joern brings a wealth of experience and perspective to his leadership role on the CEO Forum.

“At that time, the different organizations [then Christian Children’s Fund (CCF)] didn’t know each other,” says Joern. “John Schultz, who was the CEO of CCF [now ChildFund International/USA], brought the partner organizations together, and the Alliance was founded in 2002.”

The aim of the Alliance was for the members to learn more about each others’ work, to identify areas for collaboration, and to work on the brand.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Joern, “but there’s still more to do.”

In 2012, the Alliance appointed Jim Emerson as Secretary General, based in the United Kingdom. Later, a Secretariat was formed, based in New York City, and is currently led by Secretary General Meg Gardinier. The Secretariat, among other functions, steers the global advocacy work of the Alliance, which Joern believes is one of the Alliance’s most significant achievements.

He recognizes there are some very serious global challenges that affect the work of all Alliance members, such as limitations to civil liberties and shrinking space for civil society. Government funding is being cut for development work. And the rise of populism in response to migration and demographic changes is of great concern.

Bringing child protection home

Child protection is central to the work of ChildFund Alliance. But it’s not something we all do on quite such a personal level as Joern has recently.

In 2015, almost 60,000 unaccompanied refugee children arrived in Germany, fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Among them was Naim, a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan who, after a dangerous and grueling three-and-a-half-month journey by foot, car, motorbike and boat, arrived in the small town near Stuttgart where Joern lives.

In response to an appeal by local authorities, Joern and his wife, Susanne, volunteered to foster a child. Once they were approved as foster parents, they welcomed Naim into their home.

“When Naim first came to our home, he spoke only Dari and a bit of Turkish. He hadn’t gone to school at all,” says Joern. “But he was ambitious and eager to learn. My wife taught him the German alphabet, one letter a day. In just six months, he could speak enough German for us to talk well with each other.”

Naim is thriving academically. Now in his third year at school, he will graduate next year. In three years he will achieve what most children do in nine years of school.

Naim has had no contact with his parents since he escaped Afghanistan, and doesn’t know if they are alive. Last autumn, he agreed to be adopted by Joern and Susanne. And in April, on the day before his 18th birthday, the court approved the adoption, granting him German citizenship and the right to stay in the country.

“We hope that Naim will continue to do better and better as he leaves his traumatic experiences behind,” says Joern. “He has proven that he has a very strong personality. Living in a peaceful country and a protected situation, he can make the most of his potential and strive for a ´normal life´ as young people should do.”

Joern with Susanne wife and Naim Dec 2017 crop
Joern, center, with his wife, Susanne, and Naim, a refugee from Afghanistan who they have recently adopted.