Red Cross Mission Moment: Helping Unaccompanied Minors

Photo by David Kozlowski

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, Outreach Coordinator and Caseworker for the Americas, National Headquarters

I have been with the American Red Cross for 16 months. Perhaps it’s the newborn making me describe it in terms of months.  Especially since, like a newborn baby, it feels like a new day of discovery each day in my role here.  Like many Red Crossers, I see every day and every opportunity to engage as a mission moment.  Nonetheless, if I were to label one moment or process as the quintessential instance where I felt I was contributing the Red Cross mission, I would have to go back to the first four months working for the organization.  When I was first hired, I was told that I was going to be conducting a needs assessment along the border to evaluate the Restoring Family Links needs of migrants.  Now let me interject with some background. I had been in school most of my life and while I was able to speak about this thing called a needs assessment in a somewhat intelligible way, I had my head in research, and had not had the opportunity to apply my student-debt laden skills.  So this was new and a 1,951 mile border was just slightly intimidating to say the least.

So as a part of this project, I had the opportunity to go to Texas, southeast Texas specifically, and meet with service providers, migrants, and government officials.  Over recent years, Texas has seen a doubling of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, so it made sense then to schedule time to meet with programs working with this population.  The week that I spent in the region involved back-to-back meetings and airplane travel (during which I found out I was pregnant). Despite the morning sickness, this opportunity to listen was not lost on a new Red Crosser like me.  I found myself at a clustering of houses surrounded by farmland in Texas. I have to admit, I almost thought I was in the wrong place, but soon discovered this was exactly the right place for me to be.  It was an organization run by nuns assisting migrants and youth who were aging out of the unaccompanied minor program.

Walking in, I heard one of the nuns lead an English language class.  She then turned to us, me and our colleagues at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and introduced us with such fervor that I thought “gosh, I hope they don’t feel obligated to talk to us.”  We were situated in a classroom in the back of the schoolhouse to meet and speak with migrants.  The first young person came in.  He was an asylum seeker who had aged out of the system.  I introduced myself, “Nadia Kalinchuk con la Cruz Roja Americana.”  He proceeded to sit down and cry from what seemed like a heart-achingly devastating journey.  He spoke about the reasons he fled Guatemala – he was a gay male facing persecution in his community.  He shared the isolation he felt and still feels surrounded in a community of faith that did not accept him for who he was.  We shared that discreet moment behind closed doors, and when I left, his tears and words stayed with me.  I was under no delusion that he was sharing this with Nadia Kalinchuk, the social worker, but rather he confided in an organization that he knew he could trust. I knew then what I know now – I am a part of this beautiful tapestry that is the Red Cross.  One movement united.

While I was exiting the facility, I sat in the hallway waiting. In entered another unaccompanied youth who had aged out.  When the nun came to greet him, he asked, when can I call home?  She said, “In a little bit, do you have the number?”  He pointed to his pocket, which he had been clutching, and said “yes.” 

Since then, I have had the honor of overseeing the start of multiple pilot projects along the border which aim to reconnect migrants with their loved ones through a phone call. Often after enduring the dangerous migration to the US, the only glimmer of hope left is the piece of paper with their families’ contact information. These connections, this context, are what I feel the mission is all about.  Working collaboratively with amazing humanitarians, listening to people share their stories, helping them connect to family and seeing their resilience under difficult circumstances all brings meaning to and fuels the mission of the Red Cross.