Finding Hope through the American Red Cross

Restoring Family Links caseworkers work with clients to initiate cases to find their loved ones.

Restoring Family Links caseworkers work with clients to initiate cases to find their loved ones.

Story by Liz Dorland, Nebraska/SW Iowa Region, Communications Manager

I believe I can say this with confidence - for most United States citizens, the thought of being separated by war from our family is simply unfathomable. I don't know about you, but, I can't imagine being forced to leave my mother, father, brother, sister, cousins - everyone behind just to insure my children would have a safe place to grow up. What would that look like? How would that feel? I met two women who know all too well the answers to these questions.

The pain of making that choice is visible on Nyakong Machougo's face. As tears swell in Nyakong's eyes, the 32-year old sobbed, "I cry every time I talk about it."

From left to right: Nyakong Machougo and Shweta Goswami

From left to right: Nyakong Machougo and Shweta Goswami

Nyakong's hometown is Bentiu in South Sudan. She and her family became separated when the government stormed Bentiu "because it was rich in oil" and the fighting escalated. Nyakong was able to flee, the rest of her family couldn't. The last news she received about Bentiu was on TV ā€“ her town was burned down. While war and genocide continue to escalate in South Sudan, she worries even more for the welfare of her family. It's that constant fear that brought her to the American Red Cross in Omaha.

Nyakong met with Shweta Goswami, a Red Cross volunteer trained in reconnecting families around the world with the help of many people. "Iā€™m trying to find my loved ones. So I'm trying to call and can't get in touch. I came to the Red Cross so they can help."

Many know the Red Cross helps during times of disasters and collects blood, but the American Red Cross is just one small piece of a much larger puzzle. The American Red Cross is part of a global network of other Red Cross societies, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. These humanitarian agencies work together to reconnect families who have been torn apart by disaster, conflict, or migration; it's a program called "Restoring Family Links."

For about an hour, Nyakong tells Shweta about her family: where they last lived, how old each person is, what color eyes they have, physical characteristics ā€“ anything that could help a caseworker with the South Sudan Red Cross find this person. Nyakong isn't the only person searching for family. Rhoda Naylera Gatlek's story is woefully similar.

Rhoda Naylera Gatlek (right) works with American Red Cross caseworker, Dena Howard (left).

Rhoda Naylera Gatlek (right) works with American Red Cross caseworker, Dena Howard (left).

Rhoda is from Leer, a small town in Unity State in South Sudan. For over a decade Rhoda and her family would flee on foot from the rising violence in Leer to Ethiopia (as the violence waxed and waned they would return to Leer then walk back to Ethiopia). In 1999, Rhoda, her husband and two children left South Sudan and came to Omaha. From time to time Rhoda said she would receive a phone call from her sister Anna who was still in Ethiopia. On December 17, 2013, Anna placed her last call to Rhoda. Rhoda explained that Anna again returned to Leer, "she said it was becoming very dangerous and they would need to flee (to Ethiopia). She had no money and was unsure where she would go because it was too dangerous."

Rhoda added, "All our homes in Leer were destroyed. They were burned down."

Just as Nyakong had done, Rhoda met with a trained Red Cross caseworker to describe her missing family members, where they had lived and handed them a picture of her sister, Anna.

Both women know and understand the Restoring Family Links process takes time; time for their cases to arrive in Washington, DC before being sent to Geneva, Switzerland (home of the International Red Cross) and then on to a caseworker with the South Sudan Red Cross. While time may not be on their side, these two women say they now have hope because they came to the American Red Cross.