This Week in Restoring Family Links News 12/13/2014-12/19/2014

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.

International Migrants Day: This week, the United Nations recognized International Migrants Day which commemorates the adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The day is a day to recognize the contributions made by migrants to the societies in which they settle as well as draw attention to the increasing plight many face when immigrating. It is estimated that there are 232 million migrants internationally today, surviving and struggling in a variety of political, cultural, and contextual situations. Two contexts that are often in the news (at least in the US) are migration in the Mediterranean and the Americas.

Before I delve into those two topics, I would like to highlight the work of the Red Cross Movement to protect migrants and alleviate their suffering. As an impartial, neutral organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross works neither to encourage or prevent migration, but rather to ensure that vulnerable migrants and their families are given the protection they are due. This includes promoting alternatives to detention, and when migrants are detained, ensuring they are done so in a way that preserves and promotes human dignity. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is also committed to protecting vulnerable migrants, and for the International Migrants Day, released a call to action for the protection of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

That brings me to the European/Mediterranean migration context. Over the past year, the Mediterranean has become the deadliest border in the world for migrants with thousands of people fleeing crises in the home nations for safety of Europe. Overcrowding of boats, rough waters, and the increasingly dangerous behavior of smugglers has led to almost weekly shipwrecks. In response the Italian government launched Mare Nostrum, an operation to rescue migrants from the sea. This effort recently came to an end and a smaller operation was started by the European Union. However, individuals have also taken up the mantel of protecting migrants, including one couple who have saved 3,000 lives.

Even once migrants have reached European shores, their struggles do not end. Many are trying to reach Western and Northern European nations where they already have family, yet European law dictates that they have to seek asylum in the nation at which they first arrive. This has lead migrants and Southern European nations to protest current policies and call for immigration reform, respectively. Even those who make it to Western Europe, but are trying to reach the United Kingdom have become bottlenecked in Calais, France. For International Migrants Day, one news story highlights the days, miles, and struggles of three migrants' journeys who are now waiting at the port to enter the UK.

In the Americas, a lot of the news over the past few months has focused on the increase in unaccompanied child migrants fleeing Central America for the United States. While their narratives and the work of organizations to help them are critical for ensuring the protection of vulnerable children, it is also important to highlight other migration issues in the region. The treacherous conditions migrants face when crossing into the US has led to many migrant deaths along the border. In Texas, the lack of a centralized tracking system and funding means many migrant remains go unidentified, placed in unmarked mass migrant graves leaving loved ones without the knowledge of their fate. In response, many organizations have begun providing humanitarian assistance to migrants in the borderlands. This includes putting water along migrant routes, providing medical aid when possible, and helping to meet the family communication needs of migrants.

As immigration reform continues to be a “hot topic” in the US, it is important to remember the daily plight faced by many migrants throughout the Americas. It is important to remember that migrants are humans with human needs and rights. It is important to remember and support the work of organizations ensuring needs are met and rights are protected. And it is important to remember all these things when policy is discussed and changed.

Cuba Announcement: This Wednesday, President Obama announced that he plans on opening diplomatic relations with Cuba. This will bring an end to a decades long embargo that cut off Cuba from the US and limited the communication and visitation ability of Cuban Americans to their families remaining on the island nation. A generational divide marked the majority of reactions from the Cuban American community with younger generations welcoming the opening of ties while sentiments of anger and betrayal were expressed from those who were born in Cuba. Over the years, the Red Cross has stepped in to facilitate communication between family members divided between the two nations when regular means of communication became unavailable. It is our hope that the opening of diplomatic relations better allows for loved ones to communicate and interact with one another.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 12/06/2014-12/12/2014

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.

Human Rights Day: December 10th marked the United Nations’ Human Rights Day, which commemorates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations following World War II. The day is an opportune time to reflect on the human rights victories made since its adoption – from establishing the universality of rights for all human beings to laying the groundwork for conventions providing protection for women and children. However, it is also a day to examine the work that needs to be done to better ensure these human rights are provided. And as many news stories shared, 2014 was a horrific year for human rights violations. And while it is easy to despair while looking at the big picture, it’s also important to remember the everyday work and the small victories won by human rights defenders around the globe. By doing so, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be seen, not as a statement of victory, but as a hope for the future; a call to action for everyone to take a stand against impunity, violence, and inequality; a vision for what the world can become.

As a part of the Restoring Family Links team at the American Red Cross, I cannot pass on this opportunity to highlight the connections between the reconnecting families work of the Red Cross Movement and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 16 of the Declaration establishes the importance of and protections for the family unit. This basis has led to family connection and reunification to be included in several UN Conventions from the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (article 12), to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (articles 9, 10 and 22) and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrants Workers and Members of Their Families (articles 4 and 44). This makes family reconnection work not only a mandate of International Humanitarian Law, but also a human rights imperative. So to all my fellow Restoring Family Links team members, I thank you for your work, not just as a humanitarian, but also as a human rights defender.

South Sudan: As the conflict in South Sudan marks its one-year anniversary, many humanitarians are worried about a possible escalation of violence. While the rainy season provided its own unique sets of challenges for providing humanitarian assistance and protection, it also limited fighting. Now that it is over, many are worried that the conflict will escalate. This could have dire consequences for the children of South Sudan who have already endured the brunt of the conflict. Attention this week was also paid to the effects the conflict has had on the nation’s wildlife, especially its elephant herds.

And despite the rather bleak news concerning the status of the conflict, there has been relatively positive news concerning international response. After months of refusing to recognize the South Sudanese crossing its borders as refugees, the government of Sudan has finally requested the UN to recognize them as such and therefore start providing them the assistance granted to persons with refugee status. Also, as the UN continues to debate sanctions against South Sudan that could include an arms embargo (which some see as a necessary step in de-escalating the conflict), there is a positive role the US government can play in ensuring it is passed.

Restoring Family Links: Reaching Across Continents and Conflict

John Kwigwasa holds picture of his sister sent to him along with a Red Cross Message.

John Kwigwasa holds picture of his sister sent to him along with a Red Cross Message.

Story by American Red Cross Connecticut Chapter

John Kwigwasa braved incredible hardship after being displaced from his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to civil war and then as a refugee living in South Africa during the violent xenophobic attacks of 2008. Since John and his immediate family have relocated to the US, John has been working with the American Red Cross to trace his relatives in other parts of the world. He vividly remembers the day in 2001 when he last saw his village in DRC and his six siblings.

“We had seen it brewing, but we still had hope. After all, this was our country. I was born in Congo and it was all I knew; besides, I was just recently married and my wife was three months pregnant with our first son. Word had reached me at work not to return home, Kivu had fallen under attack from gunmen.”

That morning in 2001, John saw the last of his six siblings before he set out to work in a distant village. “I’d always wanted to become a mechanic. I’m really good with cars. I actually was working on a diploma to qualify for a professional certification.”

Throughout his village rumors had begun to spread about a potential violent retaliation following the assassination of President Laurent Kabila. “We knew Kabila had received help from Rwanda and Uganda,” John recalls, “but nobody thought much about what Kabila had promised those governments.”

The conflict that erupted in 2001 was targeted and vengeful. Among government forces, it was widely believed that the Ugandan and Rwandan governments had a hand in the president’s assassination.

“Soon enough, the was word that all refugees in the country, particularly Rwandans had to be hunted down, returned—or worse, if you were a woman, raped before being killed.”

John’s father, a local fisherman who had regularly canoed Lake Tanganyika, as far as Zambia, soon found his house surrounded by gunmen.

“My mother was Tutsi, from Rwanda. They weren’t just hunting down foreigners, but everybody suspected of harboring them as well. Worse, a slight deviation from an arbitrary look, a Congolese look, marked you as a target for the brewing attacks.”

Anticipating the coming danger, the family managed to smuggle their mother out of the country the night before gunmen surrounded the house. However, John wouldn’t find out about her fate until later when, as a stateless person in Zambia, the tragic news would reach him.

“We got her onto a boat to cross Lake Tanganyika to Burundi, but the Navy patrolling the border had been given orders not to let anyone to enter. We suspect their boat was defiant, for everybody on the boat was killed, shot by the Navy.”

When John escaped DRC to Zambia, he had left his pregnant wife behind. The gunmen that had attacked his father’s home killed his father and two other siblings. It would take years until he was reunited with his wife and two-year-old son in a refugee camp in South Africa.

For several years, John enjoyed some stability in South Africa. He held two jobs. “I was a mechanic by day; at night I worked as a security guard. But South Africa was bad, eh!” John remembers the violent xenophobic attacks of 2008 on migrant workers in the country. 

“One day, a friend came to pick me up at work. On our way home, we met a group of young Xhosa men who were very hostile. Their leader asked us why we were taking their jobs and stealing their women. When we told them that we both had been married before coming to South Africa, and that we got the jobs nobody wanted in the country, the group leader felt annoyed. He looked down on us and said he was going to kill us. I thought it was a joke. Within seconds, he pulled out a pistol and shot me. The bullet went through my left thigh and out.”

Even though John survived that incident, he spent two months convalescing at a local hospital. Upon being discharged he asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative at his refugee camp to see about being repatriated back to DRC.

“I wasn’t thinking straight, I was traumatized. I couldn’t look my wife in the eye. To add to my experiences, I just couldn’t live with the feelings I had buried inside. I was so traumatized I wanted to kill myself, to end it all,” John said, recalling the stress of his attack and of learning about his wife’s treatment at the hands of attackers in DRC.

While in South Africa, John says, his wife finally told him how she managed to escape. “She said, after I left her family took her in. However, their village was attacked too. She and other young women were taken away by the gunmen as sex slaves.”

With 2010 fast approaching and South African officials getting serious about hosting the FIFA World Cup Soccer Championship, John’s camp in Cape Town was shut down.

“They told us that they couldn’t have refugee shacks within eyesight of tourists. Thus between 2008 through 2011, we lived in fear again. To integrate us back into the community, they assigned us homes where we lived with until our papers were processed and were assigned to a third country, the United States of America.”

The American Red Cross provides Restoring Family Links services to families that have been separated by natural disaster, conflicts and other tragic events. Caseworkers at local chapters around the country help families locate missing relatives by working with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in nations around the world.

Once a family member is found, the Red Cross helps them reconnect through short messages. This year the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region has helped restore family links between repatriated Congolese refugees and their families in New Haven and Bridgeport. John Kwigwasa’s family is one of them. 

“In the beginning, life here in America was tough,” John said. “We went five months without jobs. We asked for jobs but they told us that we needed to settle down first. Later, I got a manufacturing job. I now work for a small company that specializes in winter gardening.”

John met Jan Radke, Senior Director of International and Military Services with the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region. It was through her that he discovered he could trace the whereabouts of his siblings. 

“I was excited, but also had to be realistic.”

After some months, a Red Cross affiliate in Zimbabwe was able to locate John’s sister at the Tongogara refugee camp.

“I thought I was alone. I felt happy knowing my sister was alive.”

The reunited siblings have continued to exchange messages through the Red Cross. John is hoping to help his sister to resettle in a safe place, as he was able to do.

“My sister wrote to me saying once she received a two-weeks ration of food supplies and was told to hold onto them for two months. Can you imagine that? With two kids, huh?”

Despite his concerns, John remains hopeful; an outlook that he attributes to the favorable chances his sister has over being sent here to America because he now has an established permanent resident status.

“Now, I’m really happy and want to help my sister find a third country. It’s not easy living in a refugee camp. I lived in one. In the camp, the processes can be long and if you don’t know anybody to help you, it can almost be impossible to get a third country.”

The process is ongoing, but there is hope that one day the two siblings will be reunited and his sister will know the security John, his wife and children now have.

“We have sleep now. We go home and nobody comes to attack us. I feel safe. Safety is really important to me.”

For more information on the American Red Cross Connecticut Chapter, please click here.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 11/29/2014-12/05/2014

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.

Syrian refugees protesting in Athens. About three hundred men, women and children have been on the same spot for over a week now, demanding that they be granted permission to move on to other European countries. Credit: Apostolis Fotiadis/IPS

Syrian refugees protesting in Athens. About three hundred men, women and children have been on the same spot for over a week now, demanding that they be granted permission to move on to other European countries. Credit: Apostolis Fotiadis/IPS

Syrian refugees: As the Syrian Civil War rages on, those displaced by the conflict continue to face a variety of experiences and obstacles in receiving the assistance and protection they deserve depending on the location to which they have fled. A few weeks ago, hundreds of refugees were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea and taken to Cyprus. Because many of the asylum seekers were hoping to reach Western Europe where they already have family members and economic conditions are better, most have not registered with the Cypriot government as refugees, effectively leaving them in limbo. Similar circumstances are faced by refugees in Greece, where hundreds of Syrians are protesting not being allowed to leave the country in order to avoid Greece's slow asylum processes and xenophobia. For those who have reached Western European nations, such as Germany, experiences have been mixed with some facing resistance from local communities and others being welcomed with open arms as they struggle through long (though expedited) asylum processes.

In Syria and its neighboring countries, humanitarian organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), continue to provide assistance to the displaced. In Jordan, the ICRC has started looking towards the future and began educating Syrians about the dangers of unexploded bombs and other remnants of war. In Syria itself, the ICRC continues to work across frontlines to provide lifesaving aid for civilians still living within conflict zones. Unfortunately, a lack of donor funding has left many organizations, such as the United Nations, to limit their humanitarian assistance programs. In Lebanon, the UN has been forced to suspend food aid because of the funding shortage.

A girl from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

A girl from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

Iraq: As the Syrian Civil War continues to have regional impacts, it is difficult to talk about Syria without also mentioning the conflict in Iraq. This week, the International Organization for Migration reported that Iraq’s displaced population has surpassed two million people. In a meeting with the Canadian Parliament, one of Iraq’s own Parliamentarians called on the international community to provide more humanitarian assistance for those affected by the conflict. The Red Cross Movement has been very active in helping Iraq's displaced populations, and even while addressing the humanitarian needs of its own people, the Iraqi Red Crescent continues to help Syrian refugees within its borders.

International Volunteer Day: As voluntary service is a fundamental principle of the Red Cross Movement, the work of Red Cross Red Crescent societies around the globe could not be done without the dedication of volunteers. Working at the National Headquarters for the American Red Cross, I am continually amazed by the commitment of our volunteers around the globe whether it is those putting their life on the line to provide aid to those affected by conflict in Syria and Iraq or the volunteers here in Washington, DC, dedicating hours and days of their time to help alleviate human suffering by reconnecting loved ones separated by conflict, disaster, and migration. For this year’s International Volunteer Day, the blog recognized several of the volunteers at American Red Cross National Headquarters. I would like to again, express my sincere gratitude for their voluntary service and all those around the globe who dedicate their time helping others whether it is with the Red Cross or another organization assisting local and global communities.