A Volunteer Career Playing Detective

Story by Betsy Amin-Arsala, National Headquarters, RFL Volunteer

In the spring of 1992, I was running a small business from my home creating venture investments in India. The year before, I had retired early from twenty-five years as an analyst and project manager in the Science and Technology world. Working from home had advantages, but I soon discovered one major drawback – no colleagues to share ideas or fun with. 

I came up with the idea of becoming a private investigator and pursued it to the point of calling a company of detectives in Maryland. They invited me for an interview. This gang of sleuths had recently realized that their business had increasingly expanded internationally over the past twenty years. Because of my networking experience abroad, they saw me as an interesting candidate for helping them reorganize and expand their international work.

The problem, I was told, was that all new PIs must pay their dues by working for one year at minimum wage, stalking Washington characters having illicit love affairs and what not. I would have to do that for at least half the time. The other half would be spent on a case they had already identified for me. 

The client was a private company in Asia. The to-be-investigated were ranking former officials from Latin America. At that time my husband was Foreign Minister of Afghanistan. He said, “Are you crazy? Can you imagine that the wife of a PM could be investigating the ex-Chief Executives of another country? No way, Jose!” My foray into the world of detective work crashed.

So I embarked on the search for a volunteer opportunity. Immediately I noticed an advertisement for the International Tracing Service of the American Red Cross published in a magazine for returned Peace Corps volunteers. Tracing! That was almost like detective work.

I called and was asked to send in my resume. This, I thought, must be some place - reviewing resumes of prospective volunteers. Soon I found myself spending every Thursday processing tons of paperwork for both tracing requests and Red Cross Messages. 

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In the beginning I was sent to several training sessions about things like International Humanitarian Law. There was no joking around about the Red Cross being neutral, impartial, and independent. At first I thought all this was a bit inane but over time I began to realize how important this stance was for the Red Cross and how necessary it was for all staff – even volunteers – to seriously reflect such a position.

The caseload at Tracing was enormous. In those early days each tracing request would set off a flurry of paperwork, letters automatically sent to the Social Security Administration and the Immigration Service. Of course the request was also logged, processed and then forwarded to the relevant chapter to carry out the search.  

The fun part was using the internet to start the quest for the missing people. Many of the chapters then were not very computer savvy so we would send them clues we found online. Detectives at work! Eventually I was absorbed in specific cases that continued to turn up for me, sometimes after months of being dormant. 

One case was a man who came to the US during the Mariel boatlift from Cuba. He was only eighteen at the time. Years went by and he disappeared, no longer communicating with his mother in Cuba. Then one day another refugee who had known the man as a boy in their village saw him in a park in Miami outside the Salvation Army. That news got back to his mother in Cuba and she initiated a Tracing Request with the Red Cross. I called humanitarian organizations all over Miami in search of the man. Sadly, I was never able to locate him or any information about him. I thought about that boy many, many times over the years.

Red Cross Messages (RCMs) also occasionally turned up interesting and poignant moments. Two women corresponded through the Red Cross system for years. The file folder (yes this was before we went paperless) was practically a foot think! One of these women was in New Jersey and the other in Abghazia. Because the messages were written in Abghazian, I had to guess their story.

I presumed they were either childhood friends or relatives, possibly separated during World War II. During the Cold War, Abghazia was located behind the Iron Curtain, so it was possible that these messages had been the only way for them to communicate with each other for 30, 40, maybe even 50 years. I was so fascinated by these women that I actually suggested going to New Jersey to interview the one and document their story from her point of view.

Over the years Restoring Family Links – searching, finding and connecting thousands of people – has changed its name more times than I can count. It shows my age and my tenure here that I still refer to it as the International Tracing Service. But whatever the name, it continues to give me several hours a week to help people who suffer from a loss of contact with loved ones due to a variety of conflicts and disasters. Given the state of the world today, the need to reconnect families is as urgent as ever. And so I continue to play detective.