This Week in Restoring Family Links News 8/30/2014-9/5/2014

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.

Red Cross Movement: This week was active with reconnecting families stories (and art work) from Red Cross Red Crescent Societies around the globe. The Australian Red Cross shared a powerful, interactive story of Nadine who was separated from her family by conflict in Burundi. Through Red Cross Messages, Nadine and her mother were able to communicate, and four years later, were reunited in Australia. In Ukraine, the ICRC shared their work to reconnect families who have been separated due to the conflict there. And in Nepal, years of conflict have left many persons missing. The ICRC and Nepal Red Cross continue their work to learn the fate of the disappeared and support families of the missing. In addition to reconnecting families services, many Red Cross Red Crescent Societies support their refugee populations in other ways. Both the British Red Cross and the New Zealand Red Cross help newly resettled refugees adjust to their new lives through employment, cultural, and psychosocial programs.

Central African Republic: This week’s updates on the Central African Republic (CAR) paint a bleak picture of a crisis that has received little international attention. Just as violence seemed to be on the decline, renewed violence in the capital city, Bangui, resulted in the death of a Central African Red Cross volunteer while he was evacuating casualties. Since the beginning of the conflict, many have fled the violence to seek refuge in Cameroon and Chad. This has increasingly been unaccompanied children who have either been orphaned by violence or separated from their parents while fleeing fighting. The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) highlighted this trend through the story of Zeinabou who led her four siblings to a refugee camp in Cameroon after their parents were killed. Many residents of the capital and the surrounding area have also crossed the Oubangi River to seek asylum in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). AlJazeera released an excellent interactive blog depicting the history of violence in the region and the stories of those now awaiting their return home in DRC.

South Sudan: As conflict continues in South Sudan, many youth have taken on activist roles to urge the government and rebels to find a solution and bring peace to the nation. However, pan-African youth organization, Africa Speaks, has emphasized that the peace brought through negotiations must focus on the interests and needs of the people rather than the maintenance or sharing of power between a few political elites. Several music groups have also used music to speak out on issues currently plaguing South Sudan, including conflict and food insecurity. Many youth have had to take on leadership roles because of the conflict, either due to their parents’ death or separation, including a young girl who led her siblings to a refugee camp in Uganda after being separated from their parents. In other South Sudan news, the UN has appointed a new head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Ellen Margrethe Løj. In an interview, she emphasized that the UN will continue to support and protect civilians in South Sudan.

Colibrí: A Messenger Between the Living and the Dead

Story by Robin Reineke and Chelsea Halstead, Colibri Center for Human Rights

At this very moment, what things are you carrying? Think about the contents of your pockets, purse, or wallet: maybe some credit cards, a photo or two, lip balm, keys, a phone. What about your clothing? Maybe some jeans, a blouse or a T-shirt, and some jewelry, glasses, shoes, and socks.  What if these items that you happened to have on you today were the only things your family had left to recognize you by?

For the families of migrants who have lost their lives crossing the US-Mexico border, the items carried by their loved ones have special significance. The items take on an excess of meaning beyond their original materiality. They weigh more. Often, they are the only recognizable trace of the person they loved.

A map produced by humanitarian group Humane Borders. Each red dot represents a migrant who has died attempting to cross, this map shows the data for 2,471 recovered remains found in Arizona between 1999 and 2013

A map produced by humanitarian group Humane Borders. Each red dot represents a migrant who has died attempting to cross, this map shows the data for 2,471 recovered remains found in Arizona between 1999 and 2013

From 1990- August 2014, 2,528, men, women, and children have died in the harsh deserts of Southern Arizona, many of them seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. (1) They die in the Sonoran Desert, a region known for its harsh climate. Temperatures regularly reach the triple digits in the summer, and fall below zero in the winter. It is a formidable landscape, and it is where thousands risk their lives each year to come to the United States.

The same conditions that are deadly to the living are destructive to the dead. As Saint Jerome said in a letter to Heliodorus, “The desert loves to strip bare.” (2) The Sonoran desert can quickly render a dead body unrecognizable, sometimes within a day. The items migrants carry are often the only tangible connections between who the person was in life and the anonymity their unidentified remains take on in death. These items not only carry an emotional, almost sacred existence, but, for the thousands of grieving families searching for answers, these items could be the link that finally brings the remains of their loved one home to rest.

At The Colibrí Center for Human Rights, our goal is to find that link in an attempt to reunite thousands of unidentified dead with their families. Colibrí is a Non-Profit, Non- Governmental Organization that is located within the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, in Tucson, Arizona.  Colibrí is the Spanish word for hummingbird, and is seen in many cultures throughout the Americas as messenger between the living and the dead. Our organization is  named in honor of a man who died in 2009 and was found with a hummingbird in his pocket.

Colibrí was founded to support the efforts of the forensic scientists at this office, who work diligently to identify and repatriate hundreds of unidentified human remains found in the desert each year. Colibrí also follows the example set by these professionals, who, in an often hostile political climate, adhere to an “ethics of unconditional hospitality.” (3) In the words of former Chief Medical Examiner and Colibrí board member Bruce Parks, “We treat people like we would want our family members to be treated.” (4)

This medical examiner’s office has examined more migrant remains than any other office of its kind in the country. For more than a decade, the office received an average of 165 migrant remains per year. (5) These human remains are exceedingly difficult to identify, and Arizona is now third in the nation for unidentified records entered into the national system following New York and California.

While the desert poses its own challenges to human identification, the nature of this mass migration poses even more. Family members, for a variety of reasons, are often unable to report their case to the police. In addition, most of the migrants crossing the border are extremely poor, migrating with hope for a better future. Their lived experience of poverty often means that they do not have medical or dental records. In trying to cross the border clandestinely, they are often carrying no identification media. They often die alone.

Guatemalan mother holding a photo of her son who has been missing since 2010

Guatemalan mother holding a photo of her son who has been missing since 2010

The Colibrí Center for Human Rights is creating a centralized response system for the human crisis of unidentified and missing migrants. Regardless of citizenship status or nationality, families can, without fear, report a missing loved one last known to be crossing the border in any of the four border states. Colibrí’s database relies on whatever data the family is able to provide, along with data forensic scientists are able to provide about the unidentified dead. The goal is to create identification hypotheses which can then be confirmed or denied scientifically through DNA, fingerprints, or the comparison of records.

Because there is still no comprehensive DNA database capable of producing blind matches, Colibrí is often hunting for a clue—something that links the description of the missing person to a detail noted on unidentified remains. Surprisingly often, that link comes in the form of something the person was carrying that the family described in detail.

With about 900 unidentified remains just in Arizona, and 2,000 missing persons for the entire border so far, Colibrí’s task is daunting, but one we take on with determination. From years of speaking with the loved ones of the missing, we know what it means to the families to have answers. As one young woman said of searching for her mother, “I only feel alive when I’m looking for her.” Colibrí hopes to end the pain of not knowing, and to inform the public of the reality of our current border.

Dying alone in the desert is something no human being should endure. The daily suffering experienced by the families of the missing is something no one should go through. Forgetting the humanity of migrants is something we cannot continue to allow.

We ask you to consider the items carried by those who died in search of a better life. For us, these items stand defiant to the dehumanization migrants face, because they remind us of the things we ourselves carry in our pockets and purses. We remember these items because they stand as physical testaments to the lives of the people who owned them. Through their inconsequentiality, their everydayness, these things remind us that they belonged to real people.

To honor the memory of the lives lost in our borderlands, Colibri worked together with artist John Stobbe to create a poster entitled “The Things They Carried.” The poster is an exhaustive count and representation of items found with the 2,306 bodies of migrants discovered in the desert from 2000 to 2013. (6)

We see these items and we remember that desert may have ended their lives, but it did little to define who they were in life.

1) Data compiled from Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and Martínez, Daniel E., Reineke, Robin C., Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Bruce Anderson, Gregory Hess, and Bruce A. Parks. 2013. “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Deceased and Missing Migrants Recorded by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2012.” Binational Migration Institute, Department of Mexican American Studies, University of Arizona.

2) Lane, Belden C." The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality". Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

3) Doty, R. L. "Fronteras Compasivas and the Ethics of Unconditional Hospitality." Millennium - Journal of International Studies (2006): 53-74.

4) McCombs, Brady. "County Medical Examiner Is Retiring." Arizona Daily Star 30 Apr. 2011. Web. 29 Aug. 2014. < medical-examiner-is-retiring/article_7f924c92-8f4e-5304-a2bb- d38b856b4911.html>

5) Martínez, Daniel E., Reineke, Robin C., Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Bruce Anderson, Gregory Hess, and Bruce A. Parks. 2013. “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Deceased and Missing Migrants Recorded by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2012.” Binational Migration Institute, Department of Mexican American Studies, University of Arizona.

6) The poster can be ordered at

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.