Breathing Hope into Dreams of a Family Reunited

Congolese refugees. Photo courtesy of Canadian Red Cross/Gina Holmes.

Congolese refugees. Photo courtesy of Canadian Red Cross/Gina Holmes.

Story by Christina Eyre, Colorado Wyoming Region, Red Cross Volunteer

As I walk up the steps of the church that shares its home with a small but committed Congolese congregation, I’m serenaded by Swahili hymns in three-part harmony. Immediately I feel under-dressed next to women resplendent in tailored kitenge of every color.

The pervasive sense of joy must be reconciled with the reason we’re here. All these people came to the U.S. because Congo’s recent history is one of terrifying civil war, political instability and corruption, and extreme privation. Three of us from the Red Cross Restoring Family Links (RFL) program are here because we can offer a small but very important solace: help reconnecting them with family with whom their ties were severed by the unrest.

After the service, our RFL Casework team (Tim Bothe, Sierra Hutchinson and me) is surrounded by people who tell us about fleeing war and the family they’ve lost. In a little over two hours, we each open five cases. We hear stories about children younger than 12 months old who have been missing for more than 15 years, or families on the verge of finally escaping, only to be shelled before they could board the boats that would’ve borne them away from the war.

We speak with “June,” a grandmother whose face shows hopeful desperation. Her eyes are filled with a story that no words can ever hope to sufficiently explain. She tells us that she was separated from her family in 1998 when the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo unleashed unspeakable violence and fear.

Her daughter and granddaughter fled an attack on the village, but their path was one that would separate them from their other family members. June, June’s daughter, and June’s grandson fled to Tanzania following the loss of her husband in the fighting. Tanzania would be a place they would call home for over 10 years.

When June resettled to the United States in 2010, she believed that reconnecting with her daughter and granddaughter was almost impossible. However, unrelenting faith can provide glimmers of hope; in 2012, June received a phone call from a longtime friend.

The friend was living in Malawi and claimed that she had seen June’s daughter and granddaughter in a UNHCR refugee camp located within the country. The friend informed June that she had three new granddaughters, a great son-in-law, and two great-grandsons. The news was joyful, and a phone number was provided to contact the family members. Unfortunately, the phone number was out of service, and once again, June was left with no means of communicating with her relocated family.

Through our recent involvement with the Congolese church, June learned of the Red Cross’ reconnecting families services and eagerly sought to open a tracing case for all eight of her lost loved ones.

RFL intends to offer renewed hope in the midst of unresolved grief and uncertainty. Restoring these broken connections takes time; it’s like detective work across continents, and locating individuals among a vast sea of refugees can be challenging. But this is a community that has learned resilience and how to rebuild lives. The same hope that informs their RFL requests gives breath and rhythm to the Swahili hymns in this church. After all, we’re here for the first time—they’re here every Sunday evening.

For more stories from the Red Cross Colorado Wyoming Region, please visit their blog by clicking here. To learn more about the Restoring Family Links program at the American Red Cross and how it can help you reconnect to missing loved ones, visit www.redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.