Restoring Family Links Photo Contest

This year, the Restoring Family Links program held a photo contest to better share the reconnecting families work of the American Red Cross. These photos help tell the story of Restoring Family Links - from the day to day outreach and casework of volunteers and staff across the nation, to helping families reconnect and communicate through Red Cross Messages, to providing documentation to Iraqi refugees to help them receive reparations. While just a momentary glimpse, they also share the joy of being able to communicate with family, the relief that comes from knowing the safety and well-being of loved ones.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the contest. The photos below were selected for special recognition. As a thank you for sharing their local reconnecting families work, each chapter that submitted a winning photo will receive a framed copy. Thank you to everyone who helps support and grow the Restoring Family Links program locally and nationally. Enjoy the photos!

Amber Bierfreund/American Red Cross - Khadra Farah receives a Red Cross Message from a sister she hasn't seen in 20 years.

Amber Bierfreund/American Red Cross - Khadra Farah receives a Red Cross Message from a sister she hasn't seen in 20 years.

Norma Cavazos/American Red Cross RFL Advocate - This man from Honduras arrived in the US in early February. Thanks to an American Red Cross phone call project, he is able to call his family and let them know that he is safe and well. After making contact with his family, he thanks volunteers, MC Thomas and Alicia Ybarra, for the help of the Red Cross.

Norma Cavazos/American Red Cross RFL Advocate - This man from Honduras arrived in the US in early February. Thanks to an American Red Cross phone call project, he is able to call his family and let them know that he is safe and well. After making contact with his family, he thanks volunteers, MC Thomas and Alicia Ybarra, for the help of the Red Cross.

Kenneth Allen/American Red Cross Operations Director - A very grateful client receives his International Committee of the Red Cross Registration Record at the National Capital Region Headquarters office.

Kenneth Allen/American Red Cross Operations Director - A very grateful client receives his International Committee of the Red Cross Registration Record at the National Capital Region Headquarters office.

Every year, the American Red Cross along with other Red Cross Red Crescent Societies around the globe help reconnect thousands of families separated by conflict, disaster, migration, and other humanitarian emergencies. To learn more about this service and to begin your search today, please visit

A New Year: Reflections from 2014 and Aspirations for the Year Ahead

Story by Kathleen Salanik, Restoring Family Links Director, Washington, DC

New Year is a time when many of us are looking forward, inspirationally, making resolutions and identifying ways we can make the most of the year ahead of us. I like this tradition and annually, I set goals for myself for the coming year. I also like to take time to reflect on the year that has passed and be thankful for the blessings that were bestowed.

As the director of the Restoring Family Links program at the American Red Cross, I have a lot to be thankful for from 2014. It was a banner year in many ways as far as achieving programmatic impact and forming and renewing lasting relationships. I’m amazingly fortunate to have a job that brings me to work every day to help reconnect individuals and families separated from loved ones. In 2014 there were some very powerful family connections that Red Cross volunteers in the US and across the globe helped to make happen. 

Some of the more memorable connections include Red Cross workers in Connecticut who reconnected a family separated by conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Migrants, fleeing instability and violence, made hundreds of Red Cross phone calls home through a valuable partnership with the aid organization, No Mas Muertes. A Burmese family, separated since 1989, was reconnected by volunteers in Syracuse, NY. A man who fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 was reconnected with his niece with the help of Red Cross volunteers in Colorado. And, Red Cross volunteers throughout the country have continued to provide support and documentation to Iraqi refugees who fled in the 1990s.These are just a sample of the over 1,000 families reconnected by the American Red Cross in 2014.

Red Crossers’ Voluntary Service allows these wonderful stories to unfold. With an unprecedented influx of unaccompanied children arriving on our southern border in late spring and early summer, the American Red Cross was called on to help the kids reconnect with their families. I had the pleasure of meeting with a couple of groups of volunteers in Arizona to thank them for the ground-breaking service they provided to help unaccompanied migrant kids make phone calls home. In total, these volunteers helped facilitate over 14,000 safe-and-well phone calls for the separated children. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to do this work.

The people I work with make these efforts all the more enjoyable. My home base is Washington DC, but I get the pleasure of working with staff and volunteers all over the country. The Restoring Family Links Mentors are the star Red Cross caseworkers who lead volunteer teams to implement local programming. At the DC office our fantastic summer interns put together a fun “thank you” video to the RFL Mentors for their great work. I also work with a dynamite team of leadership volunteers who are on the Restoring Family Links Advocate Committee, a Board that provides leadership support to the program and helps form local and national partnerships.

So, as you can see, 2014 was a remarkable year. Looking ahead to 2015 the challenges and difficult situations that separate families continue. War, political unrest, violence, instability, disaster – these hardships displace people and separate loved ones. As I mentioned at the beginning, I like to set goals for the year to acknowledge the challenges ahead and provide motivation to have a big impact. For 2015, I have a couple of goals for American Red Cross Restoring Family Links.

There are many families that may be separated and in need of Red Cross services but might not know what kind of services are available or may have trouble accessing them. I want the American Red Cross and Reconnecting Families to be synonymous. I want everyone to know that when families are separated internationally by crisis, they can turn to the Red Cross; and I want this to be easy. We recently launched an online platform to make obtaining our services easier. We’ll continue to work to raise awareness and make it as easy as possible to connect with Red Cross services. 

Partnerships with government, community organizations, media outlets and other non-profits are also key to achieving greater visibility and greater impact. In 2015 the American Red Cross will continue to play our role as convener – to bring people together to discuss issues and challenges and work towards collaborative solutions.

2014 was a tremendous year and I have a feeling 2015 will be too!

LaForice Nealy, a Champion CEO for Restoring Family Links

Story by Devin Olmack, Southeast Michigan Region, Volunteer

Detroit, Michigan is ranked second in the nation for volume of Restoring Family Links (RFL) cases and in the past five years has opened nearly 550 cases. Dearborn, a city just north of Detroit, is home to the largest Iraqi immigrant population in the United States. This community has made providing certificates of detention for Iraqi refugees from the Persian Gulf War a majority of the casework the chapter handles. I began volunteering with Restoring Family Links at the Southeastern Michigan Chapter in Detroit last September and can whole-heartedly say RFL in Detroit would not be what it is today if it were not for the support from LaForice Nealy, the CEO of Southeastern Michigan.

Shortly after I began volunteering for RFL in Detroit, I realized what a massive challenge I had taken on. Before LaForice was CEO of Southeastern Michigan, the Restoring Family Links program of Detroit struggled to receive the support and resources necessary to address a large, culturally diverse community with acute family reconnection needs.  When LaForice became the chapter’s CEO, he understood these challenges and then when I came on, he set out to help me succeed by focusing on how to best deliver RFL services to clients.

He scheduled meetings with me to address the needs, goals, and direction for RFL in Detroit. After the meeting, with a plan established and objectives in mind, he made sure to stop by my desk to check in every week when I was in the office.  The conversation always started out light but he always made a point to ask "how is Restoring Family Links going, how are you, and what do you need?”  From this point forward, I knew I had a champion behind me.

LaForice has ensured that I have the resources necessary to build a team of volunteers.  He has also realigned the program under Volunteer Services to guarantee that someone was accountable for the program 24 hours a day, seven days a week.   He makes sure people throughout the chapter know about RFL and are continuously aware that RFL is a service the Red Cross provides.  He has even personally seen that mail for Restoring Family Links does not get lost in the mail room, but is on my desk Monday mornings, assuaging my fears that client information would get lost.  Without the unbelievable support from LaForice, Restoring Family Links in Detroit would not be on its way to becoming a robust service the community can trust.

LaForice, thank you standing by the Restoring Family Links program from day one.  Your impeccable support, advocacy, and dedication to Restoring Family Links has made the program what it is today and what it will be in the future.

Red Cross Caseworker Becomes Hero for Iraqi Refugee

Story by Melissa Seibert, Northeast Ohio Region, Regional Manager

My story is sweet and to the point. Barb Slator, another employee at the local chapter, and myself have worked for a total of sixteen years on Restoring Family Links casework. Recently, we had what seemed like a difficult certificate of detention case. After waiting for months for the client’s certificate, we finally received the documentation and went to deliver it to him. I called the number listed for the client and the answer I received was not what I wanted to hear: the operated said that the number I was calling was disconnected. There was address information for the client, but since the phone was out of service, I feared that this information might also be old.

I started composing a letter to send to the client, and one of our volunteers who was passing by, Diane, commented on how worried the client must be about his paperwork because of the time it took for the certificate of detention to be issued. As we shared in our sympathy for the inquirer, Diane asked what his name is. When I responded, she exclaimed, “I know the inquirer! He lives in the apartment building across from me!” As we shared in our excitement, I looked at her and asked her to let him know that his papers were here.

The next morning, the inquirer came into the office, eyes filled with tears and said, “You are wonderful. I have been waiting on my record request for some time. I am so happy that you found me through your volunteer.” I thought how lucky we were that the volunteer knew the inquirer since the address information might have been wrong and it could have taken a long time to relocate the client. This all shows that working with the Restoring Family Links team is truly a group effort with everyone working to help our clients. I was able to give our client his papers and we all cried tears of joy as he took his papers and celebrated!

As a caseworker for RFL, it is times like this that are the true reward, when you look at the face of the client and they say to you, “Thanks to Red Cross, my Hero.”

Contributing to Social Justice through Restoring Family Links

World Day Social Justice - Cody.jpg

Story by Cody Austin, Western Washington Region, International Services Coordinator

Today is World Day of Social Justice.  Simply put, social justice exists when people are allowed to obtain their due. Human dignity, a fair and compassionate distribution of resources, and the elimination of discrimination and oppression are all part of social justice.  Through programs such as Restoring Family Links (RFL), the American Red Cross contributes to social justice around the world.  As a staff member with this program in Seattle, most of my casework involves the Certificate of Dentition program, which helps Iraqi refugees obtain what is rightfully theirs.  

In the months immediately following the First Gulf War, Iraq was engulfed by a revolution. On March 2nd, 1991, an army commander in Basra fired a tank shell through a massive portrait of Saddam Hussein hanging in the town square.  His act served as the spark for a rebellion that would see rebel forces take over 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.  When much-anticipated help from the United States never arrived, the rebellion was brutally crushed by Hussein and the Republican Guard. 

Thousands fled south to try and escape merciless bombing campaigns and barbaric assaults from the regime’s helicopter gunships.  Violent repression forced men, women, and children to abandon their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.  They left behind their possessions, their homes, their careers, and their dreams for the future.  Over 33,000 people, many of them former soldiers, crossed into Saudi Arabia seeking refuge. 

After escaping tremendous violence, Iraqi refugees faced the incredible challenge of surviving desert conditions without the assistance of the Saudi government.  Saudi Arabia denied victims official refugee status, leaving them without the most basic necessities until international NGOs and the UN intervened.  Once official camps were established, the refugees were visited and registered by representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). After the war, thousands of these individuals resettled in the United States.

Since then, the government of Iraq has established a program to provide reparations to Iraqi nationals who fled to Saudi Arabia.  The key document required to apply for this reparations program is a Certificate of Detention from the ICRC proving their status as a refugee who fled Iraq following the First Gulf War.  Iraqis living in the U.S. apply for these certificates through their local Red Cross chapter.  The reparations offered by the Iraqi government are a vital move towards establishing social justice.  Payments and benefits will never make up for what was lost and the pain experienced, but reparations are powerful because they offer recognition of past injustices and show that a government is taking steps to restore human dignity and make things right. 

Every week, I meet men and women looking for certificates and help them file a request with the ICRC.  These individuals have made wonderful lives for themselves in Western Washington, but they are also victims of a great crime: the theft of their hometowns, careers, and futures. Some left behind family members and fiancées.  All have had to wait over 20 years for some kind of justice, in addition to the long months of wondering when documentation from the ICRC will arrive.  When the certificates finally do arrive, all anxiety melts away and is replaced by an incredible sense of relief and gratitude.  As a member of an organization committed to protecting humanitarian values and social justice, I consider it a great privilege to help Iraqi refugees obtain their due and restore their human dignity.