Friday, June 15, 2012

Celebrating World Refugee Day with the American Red Cross International Services Program

Written by Amy Yen, volunteer contributor


A Restoring Family Links camp is set up in a refugee camp in Kenya, Africa.

Each year, the United States admits tens of thousands of refugees from around the world. About half of those refugees come to our home state of Texas. As we recognize World Refugee Day on June 20, we want to shine a spotlight on a lesser known service provided by the Red Cross that is of particular importance to this huge population of people.

The Restoring Family Links (RFL) program, part of the Red Cross’s International Services (IS) division, helps reconnect families separated by international armed conflict or disaster. Brian Moeschler, Program Manager, International Services and Services to the Armed Forces for the American Red Cross North Texas Region explains, “A refugee is forced to flee their home, usually because of civil war or armed conflict or a disaster, and they’re resettled here in the United States, but they lose contact with their family back home. They can’t let them know where they ended up; many times, they don’t even know that they got here okay.

“Can you imagine not knowing where your family is? Not talking to them for years or even knowing if they’re alive? And then to find out one way or another, to have that closure, it’s so important. But the best part is that we can reunite families.”

Because they often don’t know the RFL program is available to them, the Red Cross reaches out to the refugee population to let them know about the service. Refugees can then come in and tell their story at the local Red Cross chapter. The chapter caseworker gathers as much information as possible about who they are looking for, including names, birthdays, addresses, etc. Sometimes, there’s not a lot to go on.

“There are cases where they literally have to draw me a map,” says Brian. “Because there are no street names, no addresses where they’re from. They’d say, my house is about a mile from this famous landmark, and draw me a rough map.”

The chapter then sends everything they have up to the American Red Cross’s National Headquarters, who reviews it to see if there is enough information to accept the case. If so, the information is passed along to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who passes it along to the local Red Cross or Red Crescent organization in the refugee’s home country, who will then go start trying to locate the family member in question.

The scenario also works the other around, when someone internationally is trying to locate a family member who has fled to the US. The information flow goes in reverse, from the Red Cross or Red Crescent organization in the person’s home country to the ICRC to the American Red Cross National Office and eventually, if the person has been traced to Texas, to the local chapter, where it is assigned to a case worker, like Diane Millaway, a volunteer International Services case worker.

“When we receive a case, we use all resources available: the Internet, tax property searches, marriage and death certificates, everything we can think of,” explains Diane. She recently reconnected a man living in the north Texas area with his sister who he hadn’t spoken to in 30 years. During that time, he’d moved through several European countries and eventually to the US. After the Red Cross organization in his country tracked him that far, the American Red Cross National Office found his last known address in the Dallas area.

“We started calling phone numbers, we went to old houses, knocked on doors, wrote letters, left messages,” relates Brian. And eventually, Diane finally reached him. The man can now send a message back to his sister through the same Red Cross channels.

Restoring Family Links remains one of the most unique, yet most unrecognized programs that the Red Cross has. In fact, the Red Cross is the only agency in the world that provides this service.

“What I want people to know about our program is: these are all people. We’re different, yet we’re the same. We all have families. And our goal is to reconnect these families,” says Brian.

With Texas averaging in the top 10 in number of cases nationally, there is a tremendous need for case workers. But Brian specifies that they’re looking for a specific kind of volunteer.

“We need people who really understand what diversity means. They have to be able to leave any biases they have at the door and have openness for other cultures. Case workers need to be skilled at working at a computer, doing research and they shouldn’t mind doing the dirty work to track people down, like making phone calls and knocking on doors. But mostly, we need people who are humanitarians at heart,” Brian explains.

Diane says the experience is worth it. “Meeting the families is so amazing. Some of their stories are incredible. I have such a respect for them, the things they’ve been through,” she says. “I love doing the work to find people. It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle. And it’s so gratifying when you can reconnect a family.”

Brian says social work is a common background for case workers, but really, anybody who has compassion, tolerance, dedication and a love of detective work can succeed as an International Services case worker.

“The clients we reconnect successfully are always thanking us and I always feel like saying, I really didn’t do much. But if you think about it, this one little action changed their lives. It’s a really fantastic service,” he says. “This is an opportunity to work locally and make an impact globally.”

If you are interested in becoming an IS case worker, please visit Red Cross DFW to learn how to become a volunteer and tell us you’re interested in International Services.

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