Skip to main content
Brought to life by a passionate father and son team, Mission East is an international relief and development organization that has already helped thousands of people in need. Unbelievably, the story of this Danish family-driven humanitarian initiative transformed into a global life-changing operation is closely connected to the events of the Armenian Genocide and the courageous missionaries who helped the most vulnerable a century ago. Today, as Co-Founder and Managing Director of Mission East, Dr. Kim Hartzner is responsible for its leadership and strategic direction, but also – for preserving the family legacy.

Mission East was founded in 1991 by René Hartzner, who was quite familiar with Eastern Europe due to his position in an international trading company that required a lot of travelling in the region, and his son, Dr. Kim Hartzner. “From his work, my father had many connections in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Over the decades leading up to the start of Mission East, my father and I had also developed a large network among the dissidents and in churches in many Eastern European countries,” explains Dr. Hartzner. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the established connections had them uniquely positioned to support people who found themselves in dire conditions. However, an important incentive for their decision to start helping others may be found further in the past – in 1915, to be precise.

During the Armenian Genocide, Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen saved thousands of children and opened the Bird’s Nest orphanage in Lebanon following the mass evacuation of children from the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. The diary she kept at the time played a huge part in raising global awareness about the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire. Dr. Hartzner was deeply moved by his compatriot’s life work: “As a Dane, you cannot help being touched by this incredible story, which I was actually told first time by a representative of the Armenian Social Affairs Ministry. That orphanage, located in Byblos, is still in operation. I visited a couple of years ago, during a trip to supervise our support for Syrian refugees, including them many Armenians – even some that had gone to Karen Jeppe* College in Aleppo. In some awful paradoxical way, history now repeats itself!”

The first project Mission East carried out as a humanitarian NGO entity in 1991 was the delivery of life-saving medicine, donated by a Danish company, to elderly diabetic patients in Saint Petersburg, Russia. “The mayor supported the social work of a church and had promised that if they provided medicine, they would get a half-finished cultural center. My father got in touch with a Danish pharmaceutical company and was given $300,000 worth of diabetes medicine. Mission East was born, and my father and I spent all our free time collecting money in Denmark and traveling with relief aid. Our garage was quickly filled with clothes, medicine and hospital equipment that we and others drove to Eastern Europe in trucks,” says Dr. Hartzner. And that was just the beginning.

“In the early 90s, Armenia suffered the effects of a triple disaster: the earthquake in the late 1980s, the war with neighboring Azerbaijan and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Large parts of the population did not get basic services, even food was scarce for the most vulnerable parts,” says Dr. Hartzner. “So, in October 1992, Mission East sent large airplanes with relief aid cargo from Denmark to Armenia containing, among other things, a transportable emergency hospital designed to be used in case of a nuclear war. In the course of two years, we sent a total of nine large transport airplanes to Armenia, most of them with food, medicine and hospital equipment. The hospital we established as part of that operation is still functioning today, and is referred to as the Hospital ‘Denmark’.”

With aid from the state and private sector first in Denmark and later on a global level (Mission East received support from the EU and UN, among many other entities), the NGO quickly grew into a solid humanitarian organization with more than 300 staff members worldwide, working in Afghanistan, Armenia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Syria and Tajikistan.

However, even with all that support, the resources are not yet enough to help all who need it: “We face large-scale humanitarian disasters where we need to decide where our capacity can be brought to the best use in the help of other people,” laments Kim Hartzner, adding: “In North Korea, where 11 million people in are in need of humanitarian assistance, Mission East, along with only four international NGOs with a permanent representation in that country, can work together with the United Nations to provide assistance to just 2 million people. It is a great challenge to be able to reach only a fraction of a large population faced with enormous needs and having to prioritize one’s effort.”

“The only way to see the needs covered is that more people take up the challenge and engage to make a difference. More heroes are needed!”

For someone who has dedicated his life to helping fellow human beings, it’s hard to understand why some choose to ignore this heartbreaking reality. “Most governments spend hundred times more on their military budget than on development assistance. The resources in the rich part of the world are enough to bring life-changing support to the needy people of the world, but somehow, we prioritize differently,” he says incredulously. “The only way to see the needs covered is that more people take up the challenge and engage to make a difference. More heroes are needed!”

Finding financial support remains one of the harshest aspects of keeping up with the good work, but there are others. When it comes to Dr. Hartzner, he has his own recipe for dealing with work-related stress and its consequences: “I am basically an optimist, but at the root of this positive outlook on life is my strong Christian faith and belief that life has meaning, and that God has a plan for each of us, myself included. I am just very keen to ensure that I follow the basic principles of love, care and respect for other people.”

Seeing with his own eyes the impact his work has had on others helps, too: “In the late 90s, we began the groundbreaking work of changing approaches to the Armenian education system dealing with the inclusion of children with disabilities. One of the first children we met was Helena, who had a speech problem but was otherwise fit and well. Years later, when I lived in Armenia for two years, I met her again – she had a job in the supermarket, smiling all over when she saw me. This is one of the best experiences in my life, realizing that what we do pays off in the long term. In spite of the massive tragedies I sometimes witness, my life experience of seeing people changed and understanding that I have a role in this, makes me never wish to give up, but instead keep on facing new obstacles and challenges.”

“I have not been placed on this earth to only enjoy the good things life has to offer, but to give of all the gifts I have received to other people. I have lived a very privileged life. I have a lot to be grateful for: I have a great family with four sons, all of whom are a source of great inspiration to me, I have friends, and I am met with warmth and hospitality wherever I go. I was at the fall of the Berlin Wall and went on to found Mission East with my father and see it grow. Life has given me so much – for me Gratitude in Action is giving back all the things I have received.”