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Ten Minutes With Joe Lombardo

A firefighting peacekeeper



Photo by Sergio Pereira

Joe Lombardo has recently traveled to Nairobi, Beirut, and back to Nairobi with the United Nations. For Lombardo, this is nothing new. He has spent more than two decades leading the UN’s recovery, security, and logistical efforts in some of the most dangerous sites on the globe. Locally, he is a key member of the Katonah Fire Department and vocal advocate for those in need. He lives in Katonah with his wife, Jenn, and their two young children.

Did your childhood influence your career choice?
I grew up in Montreal, where students start French in kindergarten. My parents are both Italian and spoke it all the time at home. Our dinner conversations would go back and forth between English, French, and Italian in the same sentence.

How did you join the United Nations?
While in graduate school, I decided there were three places I wanted to work: the Canadian government, an advertising agency, or the United Nations. Connections from my internship with DDB Worldwide led to a job offer with Disney. Then I interned at the UN. I took walks with my dad to figure out my next move. Mickey Mouse lost. I graduated in 1994 and moved to Rwanda a few weeks later.

What helped you cope with what you saw in Rwanda and other missions? 
The genocide had recently ended when I arrived in Rwanda. As part of peacekeeping, I helped set up the tribunal, which involved visiting massacre sites, including Nyarubuye. It was a seminary where women and children had tried to take refuge. I went from being in business school to standing before a 1,500-person massacre site in central Africa. I truly believe your brain has an infinite ability to adapt. As a team, we discussed everything we saw and truly supported and learned from each other. 

How does your family deal with your travel? 
Well, my wife is in charge. She gets final say on whether or not I go anywhere. When I went to Haiti a couple of days after the earthquake, her reasoning was that she could text ten dollars to the Red Cross or she can send me. I can do more.

Is it ever tough to assimilate back into life in Katonah? 
When we were house hunting, we made a complicated spreadsheet with schools, taxes, and commute times. Everything about Katonah matched up. But at the end of the day, it’s what couldn’t be quantified that made the difference. I know how lucky I am.

You were recently elected a lieutenant in the Katonah Fire Department. How does that compare to your other work? 
Even though what we see on calls is different than what I’ve experienced abroad, it’s still sometimes tragic and difficult. That same sense of teamwork and brotherhood gets us through. 

How are you and Jenn helping with the refugee crisis? 
I’ve seen first-hand what people who are displaced go through. Jenn and I both knew that I could get whatever funds we raised into the right hands, so we started a crowdfunding site. We bought winter clothes and blankets, provided direct monetary assistance to the ten most in-need families in Beirut, and also managed to pay for a child’s urgent medical needs. It takes so little.

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