There is No Thanks for a Duty


Story by Jane Zimmerman, National Headquarters, Executive Director of International Policy and Relations

How did she do it? How does she continue to do it?

That’s what kept running through my mind, as I tried to speak with her in my rusty Arabic. I wanted to introduce myself, explain the Red Cross’s “Restoring Family Links” program, and see if we could help her contact relatives, whether back in Lebanon or wherever family may be.

She had just finished washing up dishes from dinner in the communal kitchen. She was kind and patient as I blistered her ears with poor grammar, mispronunciation, and broken sentences in Arabic, before resorting to a mish-mash of French, English and sign language.  “We are from the Red Cross.  We wish to help.  Do you want to contact your family in Lebanon?  Another country?  We can help you call them.  Or send a message.  If you don’t know where they are, we can help you find them.  It’s what we do.  And we can protect your privacy and their privacy.”

Miraculously, she understood. So did her two oldest daughters, who welcomed the opportunity to take a break from their homework and practice their English.  We asked her if she wanted to call her relatives now from our cell phone.  She looked at her watch and counted on her fingers.  It was 2:00 am in Lebanon.  She didn’t want to alarm her family back home by calling them in the middle of the night.  She and her husband had plans to meet on Monday morning with an attorney, who according to the Director of the family homeless shelter, was near the office of the Red Cross Chapter.  That would be a good time and good place from which to call home.  OK, we said, the Chapter will be ready to help you.

A little boy then came barreling down the hallway, with other children at his heels. Like water flowing past an island, they ran around us as he went laughing straight to his mother and wrapped his arms around her waist.  He then gave us a warm smile.  “How old is your son?” I asked.  Eight years old.  “How old are you?” we asked the daughters.  They were 14 and 13 years old.  “Ma’ shallah,” I said, the customary response in Arabic, meaning “God bless them.”

The Director then offered to give us a full tour of the family shelter, so we followed him to see the small but tidy bedrooms, bathrooms, a computer room, a brand new and beautiful playground with a high fence to protect the children, and yet another floor which he and his staff hoped to renovate soon to accommodate more homeless families, most of them migrants and refugees.

The Director told us more about the family from Lebanon. We had met only three of their seven children.  They had crossed with their mother and father into Texas from Mexico when they were caught by Customs and Border Patrol.  The father was held in detention for two months, while his wife and children were placed in the family shelter.  She had been seven months pregnant when they crossed the border, and gave birth to their seventh child just before her husband was released and the family granted humanitarian parole into the U.S.  The father was the man upstairs sitting by himself, silent on a couch, watching TV in a language he didn’t understand, holding his worry beads.  The shelter Director added that non-Latino men often had an especially tough time inside the detention facility, and like many people who were released, he seemed traumatized by the experience.

How had he done it? How had he managed to shepherd his pregnant wife and six children out of a war zone, over three continents, and keep them all together, safe and healthy?  Hopefully, the worst was behind this family.

We went back to say our good-byes. The two girls were at the dining hall table, doing their homework. One was studying from a thick textbook, entitled World Geography.  The children were attending the local school, and obviously took their studies seriously.  They went to get her mother, who came out from the family’s bedroom carrying her newborn baby.  She told us that she and her husband and children had fled Lebanon, tried to seek refuge in Europe, but after hardships there, decided to travel to Mexico and cross into the U.S.  “It’s hard here,” she said.  “Maybe we’ll go to Canada.”  Wherever you go, we told her, there will be the Red Cross to help you stay in touch with your relatives, so that you can let them know you are safe and well, or if you need help.  “Shukran,” she said, “shukran jazilan.”  Or in Arabic, “Thank you, thank you very much.”  I didn’t have to hesitate at all in responding, “La shukr ala wajib.”  There is no thanks for a duty.

On Monday, as promised and living up to the Red Cross’s duty, the El Paso Chapter gave the parents a warm welcome, and helped them make that call home.