This Week in Restoring Family Links News 2/15/2016 - 2/19/2016

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 2/15/2016 - 2/19/2016

On Wednesday, the Pope completed a six-day trip to Mexico by praying at the U.S.-Mexico border in the city of Ciudad Juarez. Before celebrating mass at a fairground, the Pontifex paid a visit to the border fence to pray for those who lost their lives on the perilous journey North, alongside a giant metal cross meant to commemorate them.  In attendance were tens of thousands, many of whom crossed the border from El Paso, Texas to hear the Pope speak. 

During his homily, he called for those listening to have open hearts and recognize the exploitation that drives many to flee their homelands. "We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis" the pope stated, in reference to the thousands of migrants who "are being expelled by poverty and violence, drug trafficking and organized crime". The city of Ciudad Juarez is a pivotal crossing for those trying to reach the United States, and has recently been plagued by drug and migration-related violence. The pope offered words of inspiration to youth to avoid drug trafficking, and took a swipe at Mexico's powerful and corrupt: "the flow of capital cannot decide the flow of people".

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Stories from the Desert: The Power of Human Resilience

Story by Jon Dillon, Casework and Outreach Associate, Washington, DC

In the hearts and minds of many, the desert serves as a symbol of solitude and self-discovery, of isolation and peace. But for thousands of people, the desert signifies opportunity and hope, while also hostility and possibly, death. Each year, thousands of migrants risk their lives crossing the deserts in the border regions of the United States and Mexico. While they journey for various reasons – violence, poverty, family reunification, etc. – they all deserve protection.

Over the past couple years, the Red Cross Movement has joined many other organizations and government partners in meeting the needs of migrants. Given migration’s complexities, this work is extremely varied, from providing information about the dangers of migration; to ensuring migrants have access to water in the desert; to facilitating the ability for families to find closure regarding missing loved ones. Collectively, this work aims at strengthening the human dignity of migrants while honoring their rights and decisions to migrate.

I have had the privilege of being a part of this work with the American Red Cross for the past two years, specifically around maintaining family communication for migrants through phone calls along the US-Mexico border. These phone calls provide a vital link between migrants and their loved ones – letting families know the migrant’s wellbeing and whereabouts and giving migrants the opportunity to receive support and trusted opinions concerning possibly dangerous decisions. This work would not be possible without the dedication and humanitarian spirit of partners such as No Mas Muertes, Catholic Charities, and Ozanam to name a few.

It is unusual for us to get an up-close visit to partner organizations in another country, but we had the good fortune to do so, with the help of our colleagues from the Mexican Red Cross. Grupo Beta, is a service of the National Institute of Migration that provides shelter and relief for returned migrants in Mexico as well as basic first aid and information on migration to travelers before attempting to cross the border. During our Binational Restoring Family Links for Migrants Meeting between the American and Mexican Red Cross, we met with them and got to see their work first hand.

Outside Nogales, Sonora with Grupo Beta.

Outside Nogales, Sonora with Grupo Beta.

Our team, a group of almost 20 Red Crossers from across Mexico and the Unites States, packed into Grupo Beta’s SUVs to traverse the rough terrain just outside of Nogales, Sonora. Because of the recent monsoons, the landscape was lush and green, making it (almost) easy to forget its dangers – thorny underbrush, sharp rocks, scarce water, searing hot days, freezing cold nights, coyotes, traffickers, not to mention that most movements take place in the dark of night, making these obstacles all the more dangerous.

As we drove west along the border wall, up and down ravines, sometimes at what felt like a 90 degree angle, it seemed that no person could be found. Eventually, we reached a clearing where a group of around 20 migrants were resting. Grupo Beta immediately went to work distributing food and providing information about the dangers of migration. Throughout their interaction with the migrants, it was clear that this assistance, whether first aid knowledge or water to stay hydrated, is crucial for saving lives.

We were able to ask the group how long it had been since they were able to contact their families. Answers ranged from days to weeks, and we let them know that the Red Cross is there to help them maintain communication with their loved ones if needed.

The following day, we were able to visit No Mas Muertes desert aid camp outside of Arivaca, Arizona. At their camp, they provide a space for migrants to rest, recuperate and receive any medical attention they need, as well as a phone for them to call their loved ones.

The process of migration can often be a dehumanizing, disempowering experience. From the difficulties of the routes, to the possibilities of exploitation by coyotes and traffickers, to the anti-immigration sentiments and narratives they encounter, there are few opportunities allotted to the migrant person to reaffirm their humanity, to say and feel, I am a human deserving of rights and respect; I have control over my life. By providing a phone call, a bottle of water, a bandage, the Red Cross and our partner organizations place needed tools in their hands so that they can make empowered decisions for themselves and their families. These seemingly small, discrete forms of support engage the power of human resilience.

As we left the desert, I was left with a new understanding of the power of human resilience.  The depth of human desperation, the lack of safe, legal and orderly migration and the seemingly insurmountable number of obstacles that lay ahead are all a testament to that resilience. The work of organizations and groups like Grupo Beta and No Mas Muertes is an unfortunate necessity to limit the human toll. 

Far too often, the desert is a tombstone. We must stand up for migrant lives and enshrine the desert as a call to action for everyone to protect humanity.

Humanitarian Action across Borders: What I Learned from the Mexican Red Cross

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

On January 14th, the American Red Cross is hosting a conference at its national headquarters office in Washington, DC to discuss “Humanitarian Action across Borders” and take a closer look at the humanitarian consequences of migration in the Americas region. For me, this event is timely in that I was recently able to witness first-hand humanitarian services for migrants on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

It’s always a pleasure meeting with Red Cross colleagues from different countries. You can go to virtually any place in the world and find Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers providing humanitarian assistance. The work of this global network is tied together by humanitarian principles (we call them the Red Cross Fundamental Principles) which include humanity, voluntary service, independence from government, neutrality and impartiality, among others. These shared values and passion create a bond among Red Crossers that transcends borders and cultures. 

But with this shared culture, there is a unique flavor to the Red Cross in each area. What I love the most about colleagues in Mexico is their pride in being members of the Red Cross. When you meet a Mexican Red Cross volunteer, there is no mistaking it. They proudly wear brightly colored and neatly pressed uniforms with distinctive Red Cross emblems. They do a fantastic job of community engagement and have high visibility.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Mexican Red Cross headquarters in Mexico City a few times, and each time, there are trainings or practice drills occurring in front of the building for all to see – numerous Red Cross volunteers in full uniform preparing to respond to emergencies.

On this particular visit, we met with Mexican Red Cross volunteers at their Sonora branch office. Being in a border town, these volunteers do a lot of work with migrants. They provide direct service, mobilize the community, and work with partners to address humanitarian needs. It was wonderful to see how the Mexican Red Cross has so many great partnerships with churches, community organizations and the government. 

Representatives from the Mexican Red Cross explain the services they provide migrants in Sonora.

Representatives from the Mexican Red Cross explain the services they provide migrants in Sonora.

The reason for the visit was to learn more about the partnerships the Mexican Red Cross has cultivated with government and non-governmental organizations to mobilize the community to help migrants. In the Unites States we recently began several phone call projects allowing traveling migrants to make “safe and well” phone calls home to alleviate the worries of their families and give migrants access to the support that family connection can provide. The American Red Cross modeled these projects on similar ones in Mexico, and we want to continue to capitalize on best practices and lessons learned in Mexico to apply to our programming in the US.

One of the mobile clinics run by the Mexican Red Cross.

One of the mobile clinics run by the Mexican Red Cross.

On this particular trip we spent a good amount of time visiting the mobile clinics and health stations run by the Mexican Red Cross. They provide health checks and first aid services to migrants who are traveling and those who have been returned. The Red Cross volunteers are compassionate service providers who offer a friendly welcome along with the health services they provide. The mobile clinics are an inviting place where migrants can rest, relax and obtain medical services. At many of the mobile clinics, phones are available to allow migrants to restore family contact. The warm welcome, health services and family phone calls are all part of a package the Mexican Red Cross provides migrants to enhance their resilience and overall well-being.

At the American Red Cross, we are on the right track in working to provide migrants with Restoring Family Links services. The Red Cross Fundamental Principles provide us a unique opportunity to work with all populations and partner with a diverse group of organizations. As we look for more opportunities to enhance the resilience of communities in the US, including migrants, the work of the Mexican Red Cross Sonora branch will serve as a model on compassionate service delivery and community engagement.

The Fundamental Principles of Helping Migrants


Story by Elissa Maish, Southern Arizona, International Services Volunteer

“Do you have a high clearance vehicle?”  Volunteers at No More Deaths (NMD) posed this question when Red Cross representatives expressed an interest to view the humanitarian work provided to migrants. The small Red Cross delegation included Harold Brooks, Senior Vice President of International Operations, Kathleen Salanik, Director of the Restoring Family Links program, as well as other key representatives from Washington, DC and Arizona. Our objectives were to explore Red Cross programs in action and to grow partnerships with organizations that share common values in alleviating human suffering.

No More Deaths is a partner organization that works to provide humanitarian relief for migrants along the US-Mexico border. They conduct water drops along migrant trails and also have a camp in the desert where travelers can receive medical aid as well as make safe and well phone calls to their loved ones.

When asked about high clearance vehicles, we knew that we were in for an adventure. Byrd Camp, the location of the NMD humanitarian operation is located in rough terrain. Our NMD staff guides for the day, Dr. Norma Price and Leah Peachtree, met us at the Arivaca Community Center.

We also met and interacted with several very dedicated and experienced No More Deaths volunteers who had just arrived in a well-worn pickup truck. Their mission for the day: backpack into the desert and leave life-saving water along migrant routes.  

After wishing them well, we continued our journey over a very distressed road to the camp. It was not lost on us that our discomfort paled in comparison to the conditions experienced by the migrants who walk, suffer and perish along these routes. We saw several small crosses dotting the landscape where human remains had been located previously. 

Upon arriving in the camp, we toured medical tents and a few out buildings. The migrants present at the camp suffered from a variety of injuries including sprained ankles, severe blisters and other foot injuries, dehydration, general exposure, and malnutrition. Patients are evaluated and if possible, treated at the camp. They are also provided with food, water, shower facilities, used clothing, shoes, and harm reduction kits.

Also while at the camp, the migrants are able to take advantage of an essential service that fulfills a critical human need – the ability to communicate with family members.  Through the cell phone services provided by the American Red Cross, migrants are able to place well-being calls to family members, most of whom are desperate for news from their loved ones.

Upon leaving Byrd Camp, our group traveled to Nogales, a city separated by a border. We traveled to the Mexico-side where we were greeted by our counterparts at la Cruz Roja Mexicana. Over lunch, we received updates on the services they provide, including those for migrants in Mexico. Since 2003, la Cruz Roja Mexicana in Sonora has served over 106,000 migrants through medical support, water and Restoring Family Links cell phone services.

One highlight of the trip to Nogales was a visit to a migrant shelter operated by a husband and wife. This shelter is a welcoming space with clean, cushioned bunk beds capable of accommodating approximately 300 people per night.

The owner told us how he was saddened to see particularly talented farmers from Chiapas leave Mexico for low paid, low valued labor in the US. He decided that he could make a difference and bought small quantities of seeds for a unique chili and then provided the migrants with some temporary parcels of land. The goal was to give them a jump start and see if they could support themselves in the long term. We were so moved when we were told that the program has been so successful and profitable, that the farmers now have no plans to seek opportunities in the USA. One person can truly make a difference.

The view from outside St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Nogales, Arizona

The view from outside St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Nogales, Arizona

Our day ended with a celebration at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nogales, Arizona.  Father Galaz and the church members had generously hosted several Restoring Family Links volunteer training classes during the unaccompanied child crisis this past summer.   Many new bi-lingual American Red Cross volunteers were recruited to help the children place calls to loved ones.

The field trip was an immense success. We witnessed the work of the Red Cross and partner organizations to protect human dignity, meaning everyone is entitled to feel safe, and have food, clothing, shelter, medical and mental health and an ability to practice their religion or spiritual beliefs. The need for contact with loved ones is essential and was recognized and understood by all. We were proud to experience the programs and services of the Red Cross in action that consistently align with our principles of impartiality, neutrality, independence and volunteerism.