Hope for Peace: Finding the Missing in Colombia

Story by Viviana Cristian, National Capital Region, Disaster Response Leader and Casework Supervisor

Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bogota, Colombia

Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bogota, Colombia

As the daughter of Colombian immigrants, I was excited to have the opportunity to sit in on an interview with Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation Bogota, Colombia.  For the last three generations, Colombia has been involved in a conflict that has displaced over four million people. While many Colombians have sought asylum abroad, those who have stayed have risked kidnappings, recruitment into armed forces, and forced disappearances.

Raich talked in detail about ICRC Bogota’s programs.  This has included taking part in hostage negotiations. When someone is disappeared or kidnapped in Colombia, the ICRC often acts as a neutral intermediary, speaking with all sides in an effort to visit people who are being held, ensuring their well-being, and, when possible, work towards facilitating their release and family reunification.

I couldn’t help but tear up when he recounted how the hostages wouldn’t believe they were really being released until they reached the airport.  It is important to remember that some of them had been held captive for up to twenty years.  They would then break down, some of them even singing a song from the salsa group Niche, “Hagamos Lo Que Diga El Corazón” (Let’s Do what the Heart Says).  The song is about how the crisis is now over, the bad things are in the past, so let us move on and go with our heart’s desire.

Fortunately, hostages are not held for that long nowadays; it is now a question of weeks or a few months.  In preparation of reunification, both the families and the soon to be released are counseled and brought up to date on each other’s lives.  ICRC’s role does not end with seeing the family and former captive seeing each other again.  There is follow up with the now reunited families to see how they are adjusting and if there is still a need for Red Cross services.

Throughout the interview, Raich emphasized three important points.  First, he said the Colombian Restoring Family Links (RFL) program has improved through the use of technology. Second, he believes the current peace talks between the FARC and the government will end the conflict. Third, he stated once the country enters a post-conflict situation, the RFL program will grow even more.  The guerilla fighters will be demobilizing and those fighters, among them minors, will be trying to find and reunite with family members.

For many years, I have doubted the ability of the conflict parties to agree to peace, yet by the end of the interview, Jordi Raich changed my skepticism of the peace talks to actual hope.  I thank him for that and I thank him and ICRC Bogota for all they have done to help my fellow Colombians.

During this year’s International Day of the Disappeared, it is important to recognize the work the ICRC and other global organizations do to help locate the missing and provide comfort for their families. For more information on the disappeared and the work being done to uncover their fate, please visit the ICRC’s website on the missing.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 8/16/2014-8/22/2014

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.

World Humanitarian Day: This week, organizations and individuals around the world recognized World Humanitarian Day. This day is set aside to honor the work of humanitarians, especially those who have passed away while serving others. It is also a chance to highlight the variety of humanitarian work done globally, and the gaps that remain. With conflicts increasing both in number and severity, this year’s day of recognition placed emphasis on the growing needs of humanitarian organizations. However, with these needs has come opportunities for innovation within the aid sector. This includes unique partnerships between humanitarian organizations and private sector businesses as well as advancements in providing aid to refugees by learning from refugees themselves.

Displacement in Iraq: Quick point of clarification before I dive into the news from this week – many have classified the Yazidi communities displaced by fighting in Iraq as refugees; however, technically they are internally displaced persons (IDPs). The distinction is important in that IDPs are not protected under the UN refugee convention. However, international humanitarian law does provide protection for IDPs in times of conflict. Regardless of whether those displaced by conflict are labeled as refugees or IDPs, the international community has the responsibility to protect them.

And now back to your regularly scheduled programming. Last week, there was a great summary of the current work being done by various UN agencies to provide humanitarian aid to those affected by the Iraqi conflict. This week a map was released highlighting their response and the gaps that remain. Globally, many nations have increased their efforts to meet the needs of the Yazidi. Turkey announced that it will be opening a refugee camp specifically for Yazidi refugees seeking asylum within its borders. Australia has responded by reserving refugee resettlement spots specifically for refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In the US many Iraqi refugees anxiously await updates from family members and look for ways to help the displaced.

Unaccompanied Children: As the response to the unaccompanied minor migrant crisis continues, many communities in the US are now hosting the children as they await immigration hearings. One Maryland mayor has encouraged his community to welcome and treat the children as neighbors. In Miami, schools are welcoming the unaccompanied migrants and providing education. While in the San Francisco Bay Area, many families are looking to provide foster care for the children. Over the past couple months, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the US-Mexico border has decreased. This could be the result of a number of different things, including actions taken by the US and Central American governments, but also the intense summer heat. 

Restoring Communication after Thirteen Years

Story by Kaitlin Sullivan, Colorado Wyoming Region, Communications Volunteer

Sarah in Uganda

Sarah in Uganda

Local Red Cross workers connected a Colorado mother with her daughter in Uganda after they had been separated for over ten years.

Sarah was separated from her family as a young girl when they fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to escape a violent conflict. Sarah’s father, brother, and all but one sister were killed one night in the heated civil war plaguing the DRC. Unbeknownst to her, Sarah’s mother and sister made it to the US, eventually making Colorado their new home, while she found her way to Uganda.

Dr. Naomi Leavitt met Sarah while volunteering with a small non-governmental organization in Uganda. Leavitt also serves as an American Red Cross volunteer in the Restoring Family Links (RFL) program in Massachusetts. Knowing that the Red Cross RFL program has successfully reconnected families like Sarah’s, Leavitt stayed in touch with the woman. Sarah had provided Leavitt with key information about her mother and sister that would prove helpful in initiating a Red Cross Family Tracing case. For example, she knew their birthdates and had been told the two had been sponsored to move to the US from their refugee camp.

That trail led to Colorado, where Sarah’s mom had resettled. A RFL Red Cross volunteer in Colorado located Sarah’s mother and sister and contacted the mother concerning her long- lost daughter.

“She thought she was dead. It had been ten-plus years since she had seen or talked to her daughter,” said Tim Bothe, International Services Manager for the American Red Cross of Colorado.

The mother didn’t hesitate to reach out to her daughter in Uganda. She filled out a form to re-establish communication. The form, which is routinely screened for content, included information on the family members and asked to get in touch. The rest was in the hands of her separated daughter. The form traveled from a local case worker in Denver to the American National Red Cross in Washington DC to the Ugandan Red Cross, to a local case worker there, and finally, was delivered to her daughter.

Thanks to Leavitt and the other Red Cross volunteers and staff working on this case, communication between a mother and the daughter she thought to be dead has been restored after ten years of silence. For the first time, the mother learned she has five grandchildren.

The American Red Cross assists in reconnecting more than 5,000 families in the US and around the world every year through the Restoring Family Links program. There is no charge for the program, its purpose being to locate family members and restore communication. To find out more, please visit the reconnecting families website.

For more stories from the Colorado Wyoming Region, please click here.

A Day in the Life of an American Red Cross Intern

Shannon Vance, Central Illinois Region, International Services/Military Services Intern

At our chapter you will find disaster services, health and safety teams, development gurus and communications experts. Every team will welcome you with a smile and a helping hand because we’re the American Red Cross. However if you’re really lucky, you will also find two wonderful people, sharing a cubicle and occasionally wearing coordinating colors. Say hello to your International Services team. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

Since June of this year, I have served as the International Services Intern under Emily Richards who is the Regional Manager for International Services and Service to the Armed Forces. Got a question about International Humanitarian Law? We’re your go-to people. Want more information about Restoring Family Links? Absolutely, let’s hear it. Perhaps you’re more interested in our fight against measles and rubella. We can do that too. Having your hands in so many different projects can seem daunting and stressful, but is it really a good job if you’re not passionate about what you’re working on?

With that being said, let me show you what one of my days as an intern would look like.

Monday Morning: All-Staff Meeting

Sitting around a U-Shaped table is part of the Central Illinois Red Cross team. Here we’ll go around and update everyone on the projects we’re currently doing, sharing funny anecdotes and laughing about the Youth Program’s ‘Sneezy Sam’ model- you fill a bottle behind him with water and when a pump is pressed it squirts out of his nose as if he was sending snot flying. Really disgusting but really effective if you want to teach kids to cover their faces when they sneeze.

Weekly Meeting with Emily

After an always eventful all-staff meeting, Emily and I regroup back in our cubicle. Surrounded by echoing phone calls and filing cabinets, we have our weekly meeting. Here we’ll talk about current projects that I’m working on or that I should start to work on during that coming week. This summer it has been full of Restoring Family Links outreach work – making excel documents filled with potential local partners that work with refugees, writing scripts for cold calls into our region’s chapter offices and finding the best way for our staff and the community to become educated about this important program.

Motivated hours of work and jokes

One of the best parts about working with such a small team (mainly just Emily) is that we’re able to get a lot of work done but also have an enjoyable time doing so. After our weekly meeting, both Emily and I find ourselves pretty motivated and work efficiently. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t talking and having a grand ‘ol time, but it means that we are spending an immense amount of time bouncing ideas off of each other and cc’ing each other on numerous emails. If someone were to take a glance at my inbox they would think that all I did was spend my days sending and receiving emails to or from Emily. What can I say? We like to send emails.

Afternoon Meeting with Erin and Austin

There comes a time in every International Services Intern’s life when you realize that it would be severely helpful for you to know the basics of Red Cross Public Affairs. The first step towards posting important International Services tidbits on Twitter and Facebook is to have a chat with Erin, our Communications Director and her assistant, Austin. Within minutes I have learned the steps I need to take in order to become Red Cross Twitter Approved and am on my merry way to finding facts about World Refugee Day to share with the worldwide web.

Scouring the Exchange for RFL documents

As previously mentioned, Restoring Family Links has been a large part of my job here. Early on, before I dedicated my time to creating these specific training documents, I spent some time on the Red Cross’s Exchange and the RFL blog, searching for anything that could be adapted into what we needed. I felt like I was a private eye- I would find a tiny hint of a lead and I would chase it until it ended in a dead end. I talked to Red Cross volunteers and employees in Portland, SW Washington, Chicago and Phoenix in order to find out that what we needed didn’t exist yet. Granted, this process took me more than a day but once I had acquired every little bit of information I could, I took each piece and tried to glue it together. Without those pieces of information, I wouldn’t have been able to make the scripts and training tools that I did. I chalked this one up to be one of my biggest successes.

Ending the day with a little SAF

At this point, I have done a little IHL and RFL so I might as well throw in one more three-lettered acronyms into the mix. Once I accomplished the Service to the Armed Forces training, I could now help close cases in our region. One of the finer details of closing these cases includes writing summary forms for many of the cases that our volunteers from Caterpillar will help us with and stuffing envelopes with surveys. On this particular day, I stuffed envelopes with information on the program so we could send them to military families of new recruits- otherwise known as Get to Know Us Before You Need Us. It truly is the little things that make these programs so successful.

As my final days as the International Services intern edge closer and closer, I find myself latching on the wonderful experiences that I’ve been given over the last two months. I’m ecstatic that someone will follow in my footsteps and be able to experience the same people, the same projects and the same organization I had the chance to. I’m not quite ready to say goodbye, and the best part about it all is that I don’t truly have to. I will be on the IHL Action Campaign in the fall and I am trained to be an RFL and SAF caseworker. I don’t have to be an intern to give back to the Red Cross and these three programs, but it sure did help me get started.