Spreading the Word: Restoring Family Links

Story by Liz Corrigan, Greater Chicago Region, International Services Intern

Whitney Trumble (left) and Michelle McSweeney (right) lead student discussion.

Whitney Trumble (left) and Michelle McSweeney (right) lead student discussion.

Last week Outreach Mini-Grant volunteer lead, Whitney Trumble, and International Services Support Manager, Michelle McSweeney, presented on the Restoring Family Links (RFL) program at DePaul University’s Law School.  The event was hosted by DePaul’s Society for Asylum and Immigration Law (SAIL), a student organization that looks to expose law students to asylum and immigration law through guest speakers, presentations, and firsthand experience in the Greater Chicago area.

After receiving an Outreach Mini-Grant award, Whitney, together with a team of both new and experienced RFL staff and volunteers, developed a strategic plan to increase outreach and partnerships throughout the Greater Chicago Region. By connecting with local student groups, community organizations, and public resources they are spreading awareness of RFL services. 

DePaul’s SAIL provided an excellent outreach opportunity, as many of the students in attendance are also involved in DePaul University’s Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic (AILC) that works to assist clients on legal cases relating to asylum, justice or immigration issues.  During the event, students expressed that RFL services could be of use to clients they are currently working with through the AILC. The student-centered discussion also resulted in staff contacts for the AILC, connections to the legal clinics at other Chicago universities, and an opportunity to participate in the annual SAIL networking event that is attended by community based organizations, attorneys, students and volunteers of the AILC - all of whom are dedicated to serving the immigrant and refugee communities in Chicago.

Whitney shares the fundamental principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Network.

Whitney shares the fundamental principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Network.

Throughout the next few months the Chicago RFL team will be scheduling more events like this one to increase awareness of RFL program services. The RFL team is currently focusing outreach efforts on Chicago neighborhoods with large immigrant and refugee populations such as Rogers Park, Pilsen, Uptown, Bridgeport, Humboldt Park, Chinatown and more.  Through new partnerships with organizations like SAIL, and using a combined approach of targeted canvassing and outreach to organizations specific to those neighborhoods, the Chicago RFL team hopes to continue building Red Cross presence and RFL service delivery for all those in need of our support. 

Local Burmese, Nepalese Refugees Learn About Hope for Reconnecting with Their Families

Story by Christine Eyre, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Volunteer

Robbe Sokolove with Eugene Yom, a social worker at the Asian Pacific Development Center (APDC)

Robbe Sokolove with Eugene Yom, a social worker at the Asian Pacific Development Center (APDC)

“We have family who are in refugee camps, family in prison or family members we can’t find.  We need help from the Red Cross to help us connect with them…we want to live together as families again and be happy.”  --Burmese asylee in Denver

The process of integrating into a new country as an asylum seeker or refugee is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can face, and the degree to which an individual is able to become a full participant in society depends on several key factors including learning a new language, access to employment and cultural orientation.  Perhaps more important is family stability, which may be compromised if family or friends have been separated internationally by conflict, disaster, migration or other humanitarian emergency.  The Restoring Family Links program of the Red Cross is a critical link in helping refugees and asylum seekers in this essential part of the integration process.

The volunteer-run Restoring Family Links community outreach program of the Colorado Red Cross works to find opportunities to identify and serve refugees and asylum seekers living in Colorado. 

Last week, American Red Cross volunteers Robbe Sokolove and Christina Eyre traveled to the Asian Pacific Development Center in Denver to reach out to Burmese and Nepalese refugees and asylum seekers living in the Denver-metro area. Through two interpreters, Robbe and Christina explained how the program works, and the kinds of help the Red Cross can offer to refugees and asylum seekers looking for family in Bhutan or Nepal. 

After listening to the presentation and asking questions, at least two thirds of our fifteen participants had potential cases for the Restoring Family Links program.  Their heartbreaking stories ranged from a woman who was separated from her husband over 20 years ago and has no knowledge of what has happened to him, to our Bhutanese interpreter who has a family member who has been imprisoned as a political dissident.

As a part of the community outreach team for Restoring Family Links, I am most grateful to our new partners at the Asian Pacific Development Center for inviting us to present this program to their clients—if our initial meeting is any indication, we have identified a demonstrable need in our community and our work with these refugees and asylum seeker may be an important part of their resettlement and integration into the community.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News

Do you follow @intlfamilylinks (Restoring Family Links’ account) on Twitter? See an interesting article but just don’t have the time to read it? “This Week in RFL News” is a weekly blog segment that highlights and summarizes some of the news items posted by RFL’s twitter.

Refugees and the State: This week, the Restoring Family Links’ Twitter shared a number of stories highlighting the ongoing struggles around the world that refugees face in relation to the actions of host and resettlement nations. In Australia, the state has largely denied its responsibilities to asylum seekers by sending them back to Indonesia or to offshore detention centers. For many unaccompanied minors, this has meant being stuck in detention in Indonesia with little hope of being resettled in another country. This past week, refugee activists and churchgoers in Australia came together to protest this treatment of refugees. Another refugee protest has been taking place in Germany where a lengthy asylum process and poor treatment of refugees has left many refugees homeless. In Lebanon, as the rising number of refugees continues to put a strain on the nation, the government seeks to limit the number of new arrivals. Elsewhere, a study finds that Canada’s new system for processing refugee claims turns gaining entry into the nation into a luck of the draw. And in the US, Wyoming continues its debate on opening a refugee resettlement program in the state.

Helping Refugees: While refugees continue to face struggles around the world, there is plenty of work taking place to help refugees. Despite the current difficulties faced by refugees in Australia, there are plenty of organizations working to help those already in the nation, including this organization helping refugees learn how to swim. This week the blog also highlighted the work of the American Red Cross and the ICRC to help Iraqi refugees obtain proof of their time in detention following the First Gulf War. In addition to the Red Cross, numerous organization from Catholic charities in Kansas to resettlement agencies in Wisconsin help newly arrived refugees adjust to their new lives in the US.

South Sudan: As the conflict continues in South Sudan, leaders from the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations call on the international community to support the work being done to provide humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict. Likewise, government officials have pledged support for these efforts and made numerous statements condemning the ongoing violence in the world’s newest nation. Condemnation has also been made of some rebel factions for their use of child soldiers and their lack of adherence to international humanitarian law.

My Red Cross Story: Reconnecting Families across Time and Distance

Robbe Sokolove, Red Cross Volunteer

Robbe Sokolove, Red Cross Volunteer

By Robbe Sokolove, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Red Cross Volunteer

People all around the globe reach out to the Red Cross to initiate an International Tracing case. They’ve been separated from their loved ones by war, conflict or disaster and they hope to send a message to get back in touch.

When a case is initiated, the national Red Cross office will look for potential addresses based on the person’s last known whereabouts. As an International Services Casework volunteer, it’s my job to start tracing them from that information in order to deliver a message.

After I retired from a career as a librarian, I wanted to pursue something that was stimulating but where I could interact with people and use my skills for something good. My 30 years of research are a huge asset - but I also perform what’s essentially detective work, pounding the pavement to knock on doors, ask questions, build relationships and follow clues to find the long-lost family member.

For example, there was a brother and sister from Somalia who got separated from each other when they were very young, each living in different refugee camps. She eventually relocated to Colorado about 10 years ago, and lost all track of her brother. He was still in a refugee camp in Kenya and initiated a case with the Red Cross there hoping to get back in contact with his sister. The Kenyan Red Cross shared the tracing inquiry with the American Red Cross national headquarters, where they ran a list of her last known potential addresses. Because those leads were here in the Denver metro area, I was assigned the case.

No one would answer the cell phone number provided, so I visited the suggested address. The first time I went, I knocked and no one answered – but a child peeked out of the shutters. I showed her my Red Cross badge to let her know it was safe. She recognized the Red Cross emblem and took me to a family member. The sister I was seeking was not home, but I was given her direct cell phone number.  After several failed attempts to arrange contact, I finally met the woman in person and delivered a hand-written message in Swahili from her brother.

I got to watch her reaction as she read his letter. She was astounded to hear from her brother after all these years, and to read that he had married and had children. Soon, I will deliver another message complete with photographs from the refugee camp.

That is just one of the dozens of interesting cases I have worked over the past year.   Reuniting families is one of the most gratifying things I have ever done.  It is a privilege as well as a great adventure.

For more stories from the Colorado and Wyoming Region, please visit their blog by clicking here.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News

Do you follow @intlfamilylinks (Restoring Family Links’ account) on Twitter? See an interesting article but just don’t have the time to read it? “This Week in RFL News” is a weekly blog segment that highlights and summarizes some of the news items posted by RFL’s twitter.

Volunteer Appreciation Week: This week, the Restoring Family Links blog celebrated the amazing contributions of volunteers to the American Red Cross through their work with the RFL program. From the program’s Advocate in Chicago helping an unaccompanied minor reconnect with his mother, to the story of Manyang Reath who was reconnected with his mother by the Red Cross and now volunteers for the program, the work of reconnecting families would not be possible without the dedication of these volunteers. Many other organizations also rely on the passion and commitment of volunteers to support their services. Volunteers with Catholic Charities in Nashville work to help refugee youths make the transition to living in the US. Thank you to all the volunteers who make the work of the American Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations possible!


Rwandan Genocide: This week was the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. Over a 100-day period in 1994, extremist Hutus slaughtered over one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 20 years later, the memories live fresh in the minds of those who survived the violence. Ever since the genocide, refugees continue to remain in the surrounding nations for fear of returning to their home nation. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone is home to over 200,000 of these refugees. While it should never take genocide to remind the world the necessity of preventing genocide, many have taken the Rwandan tragedy as a call to action for preventing future atrocities. The Rwandan and Israeli governments and civil societies have come together through their shared experience of genocide to promote awareness and prevention. While one humanitarian worker who helpless witnessed the violence in Rwanda from neighboring DRC calls on the international community to end the ongoing humanitarian crises in the Central African Republic and DRC.

Migrants: Last year, the tragedy in Lampedusa drew the world’s attention to the thousands of deaths that happen annually as migrants attempt to reach Europe by boat from North Africa. As Spring arrives and the waters of the Mediterranean begin to calm, the number of migrants who attempt this trek is expected to increase substantially, especially those seeking asylum from the political oppression in Eritrea. This past week alone, Italian authorities reported that 4000 migrants were rescued from the sea. This increase will necessitate immigration reform in the EU and calls on the international community to address the humanitarian crises currently driving migration. In the Americas, Honduran migrants injured during the treacherous migratory route from Central America to the US have called on the Mexican government to provide better protection for migrants. In a series by NPR, the lives of migrants as well as those who live along the US-Mexico border are shown. Meanwhile as immigration reform continues to stall in the US, bipartisan meetings begin to show signs of hope for an agreement in the coming years

Story Campaign March Recognition: Each month for the story campaign, every contributor from that month is being entered into a drawing for special recognition. We are excited to announce that March's special recognition is going to Bob Wiltz for his story on the work of the Greater Chicago Region to educate young adults about international humanitarian law and the struggles faced by refugees. In addition to the small prize for contributing to the blog, Bob will receive a certificate thanking him for his contributions to the outreach efforts of the Restoring Family Links program and recognizing his volunteerism and blog on the American Red Cross blog.

Refugee Reconnected with Mother by the Red Cross Pays it Forward

At the tender age of three, Manyang lost his father, uncle, and his home to the Sudanese Civil War, which also separated him from his mother. At that instant, Manyang became a refugee of the war, amongst the other 20,000 displaced and orphaned “lost boys of Sudan.” For 13 years, Manyang became accustomed to living in refugee camps along the border of Ethiopia and Sudan. Stability was nonexistent, nothing was guaranteed. By good fortune, Manyang was brought to the US at age 17 where he learned English and pursued a college degree. Throughout this time, he tried to reconnect with his mother by writing her letters through the American Red Cross. Over the course of many years, Manyang wrote around 220 letters, and finally, the American Red Cross and the ICRC were able to find his uncle, who then passed on the message to his mother. Eventually, Manyang was able to physically reconnect with his mother back in Sudan.

While his life had taken a turn for the better, he could not ignore the continuing crises faced by the people of Sudan. In 2008, he formed Humanity Helping Sudan to help elevate Sudanese refugees from poverty by teaching them vocational skills that will make them self-sufficient. Through this organization, Manyang has been a guest speaker for several summits including the United Nations’ NEXUS Global Youth Summit in New York City and at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In August 2012, the VH1 Do Something Award Show honored Manyang as one of the best world-changers, 25 and under. Additionally, celebrities including Beyoncé Knowles, Ben Affleck, Alek Wek, and Anderson Cooper have recognized him for his humanitarian work.

Manyang has also continued his ties with the American Red Cross, volunteering with the Restoring Family Links program. As an RFL Advocate he works to promote reconnecting family services in refugee communities across the US. In the video below Manyang discusses what it was like to be reconnected with his mother and shares his dedication to the RFL program.