Syrian Conflict Separates Sisters – Red Cross Reconnects Them

 Story by Christa Kuntzelman, Greater Chicago Region, Restoring Family Links Lead Case Worker

Map displaying the spread of the Syrian Civil War as of August 22, 2013 and the areas of control for the Assad government, anti-Assad Rebel Groups, and the Kurdish Militias.

Map displaying the spread of the Syrian Civil War as of August 22, 2013 and the areas of control for the Assad government, anti-Assad Rebel Groups, and the Kurdish Militias.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak to members of the Restoring Family Links Advocate Committee at their annual meeting in DC. It was an honor to be invited and I was grateful for the opportunity to share about some of the cases that I have been working on.

 One of the cases I shared about involved a family tracing effort for a woman named Sara (pseudonym) in Chicago who had lost contact with her sister. This scenario is fairly common for the Restoring Family Links program at the American Red Cross, but what was difficult about this case is that my client’s sister was living in war-torn Syria.

Sara came to our office with her daughter, and together they told us the story of their family. Sara’s sister was living with her children in a remote region of Syria.  Normally Sara would call her sister daily—just to have a quick conversation and make sure that the family was all right.

One day Sara called and the phone lines were down.  This had happened before, but normally the lines would be operating within a few days. However, this time, that did not happen. She started calling more frequently, not just once, but multiple times a day. Every time, the results were the same: the phone lines remained down.

Through Internet research, the family discovered that the area had come under fighting and attacks had destroyed the phone lines. What the family could not find through these searches, however, was any information about potential deaths through these clashes. They simply had no way of knowing the fate of their family members.

Since the start of the civil war, over 2 million refugees have fled Syria for the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq with millions more displaced internally.

Since the start of the civil war, over 2 million refugees have fled Syria for the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq with millions more displaced internally.

There was additional concern. Various sides were trying to recruit Sara's young nephews. Her anxiety had become unbearable. Sara wanted to start a family tracing case, but was worried that efforts to locate the family might bring unwanted attention that could harm the young boys who had thus far avoided joining the fighting.

The story was heartbreaking. The details and levels of concern were very difficult to hear. Despite a desire to help and a sincere compassion for the family, my RFL team and I worried about logistics. Would National Headquarters be able to accept the case? Would the Syrian Red Crescent be able to conduct RFL work at this time? How long would the family have to wait to find other any news?

After a frantic phone call with a caseworker in DC, I was encouraged to submit the case. Not only was it accepted, but it was also marked as high priority and released for tracing work to begin. Within weeks, we received notice that the family was found! Through already established religious networks, we were able to contact the family and confirm that they were ALIVE and well!

 I cannot describe to you the relief that Sara expressed when she was told the news!! In time, the phone lines were restored, and she was once again able to talk to her sister. I have checked in with the family, and the story remains the same. Life in Syria is still incredibly hard, but what has changed is that the family now knows that they have an ally. They know that if the phones go down again, someone can help.

This case is one of many that I could talk about. There are many instances where I have been unsure if a case can even be accepted, yet, a family reconnection occurs. This is why I do tracing work and love being an RFL caseworker!