Story by Edith Buffalohead, Central New York Region, Service to the Armed Forces and International Services Manager
When conflict separates family, the journey to reconnect, and one day reunite, is often filled with twists and turns, hope and despair, miles and years. When this separation happens across international borders, Red Cross Red Crescent organization works to relink loved ones. Recently, the American Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helped one family navigate this journey and reunite in Syracuse, New York.
In the spring of 2013 while living in a refugee camp in Thailand, Sahasa Khatun, sought the assistance of the ICRC to locate her parents. She had been separated from them in 1989 when they decided to cross the border into Thailand to avoid the persecution in Burma. They took her infant sister and fully intended to come back and retrieve Sahasa from her grandmother’s care.
However, the family was never able to return and reunify the family. When the time came for the family’s return to Burma, they found the trip terrifying and life threatening. Sahasa’s mother, Nur Jahan, attempted the journey several times. During her last attempt in 1994, Burmese soldiers captured her. They threatened her, saying that she could not return, that Muslims were no longer allowed in Burma, and that if she continued to try and cross the border, she and her entire family would be killed.
The family moved to another village in Thailand and continued to receive sporadic news about Sahasa. They learned that Sahasa lost her grandmother, was treated poorly by an uncle, and was married off to a distant cousin. Further news was difficult to come by and the family went years without further updates.
In 2007, the Thai government issued a decree: any persons living in Thailand without valid Thai identification must enter into refugee camps organized by the United Nations. Nur and her family were ordered to leave their home and forced to relocate to the No Po Refugee Camp. While there, Nur and her husband separated, leading to further hardship for her. But she continued to provide for her children, and after a year and eight months, they were resettled in the United States. They arrived in Indiana only to find that they had more friends in Syracuse, New York.
Meanwhile, Sahasa and her family were forced to flee to a camp in Thailand and lost contact with anyone who knew of her whereabouts or wellbeing. Her husband was arrested and detained. Left with her four children to care for, Sahasa turned to the ICRC for assistance.
She initiated tracing requests for both of her parents. Sahasa’s father was located in another camp with a new family and they made plans to reunite. Tragically, he died the day of the reunion.
During this same period, the ICRC traced her mother to Indiana and then to Syracuse. After many attempts Nur was located by staff and volunteers with the Restoring Family Links program in Central New York. They were able to give her the first communication she had with her daughter in 22 years.
The same week that the Red Cross message was delivered to Nur, Sahasa called her mother because her father had left behind a telephone number to reach her sisters. Nur and her daughters were able to send photos and documents back through the Red Cross.
Contact was sporadic because Sahasa was moved to other camps in Bangladesh and then back to Thailand. During this time RFL workers in Syracuse continued to meet with Nur and her daughters and attempted to set up a video conferencing call through the ICRC. Happily Sahasa’s husband was released from prison and the whole family was given permission to resettle with family here in the United States.
At the end of April, Sahasa, her husband, and their four children arrived in Syracuse. Without the assistance of Red Cross staff and volunteers around the globe Sahasa would never have reunited with her father in Thailand, much less reunited with her mother and sister, met a sister she never knew about, nor could she have found a safe haven for her husband and four children here in Syracuse.