Restoring Family Links: A One-year miracle in the making

Restoring Family Links: A One-year miracle in the making

For over a year, Restoring Family Links caseworkers in the International Services department have been working to reconnect a sister, Lazara, living in Cuba and her brother, Juan, living in the United States. Due to migration, the siblings were separated for over 16 years and not spoken during that time period. That’s why it was a surprise when the sister received two letters from her brother in August of 2014. Reading the letter’s distressing news of his admittance to a mental health facility, Lazara repeatedly sent letters to Juan. Receiving no response after the first two letters, Lazara reached out to the Cuban Red Cross, which contacted the L.A. Region through the International Red Cross. Lazara requested our services in the form of a Red Cross Message to know if he was alive and if so, how and where he was.

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Calling Home

Norge Ross reconnects with his mother in Cuba on World Refugee Day.

Norge Ross reconnects with his mother in Cuba on World Refugee Day.

Story by Bob Wiltz, Volunteer, Peoria, IL

When Katiusca Cespedes and her husband Norge Ross disappeared into the Singing Bird Nature Center at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois, their 10 year old son, Felix, could be overhead preparing his younger brother:

“Maykol, when mom comes out, she’s going to be crying. She always cries when she calls back home.”

Katiusca and Norge were among several hundred refugees, migrants, and other participants taking part in the first Walk for Freedom and Cultural Festival sponsored by World Relief Moline, a not-for-profit refugee resettlement and service agency headquartered in Moline, Illinois.

Children play in bubbles during the water festival at World Refugee Day.

Children play in bubbles during the water festival at World Refugee Day.

The event was organized to celebrate the new lives of refugees in the area, as well as remember those still in danger in their homelands, on World Refugee Day. After a one-mile walk through Black Hawk State Forest, first occupied by Native Americans as long as 12,000 years ago, families enjoyed a traditional American picnic consisting of hot dogs, watermelon, chips and cookies. Outdoor activities included a native Burmese dance group, a Piñata, a potato sack race, and a water festival.

Inside the Singing Bird Nature Center, participants discussed displays describing the customs and cultures in Burma, Cuba, South Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, and other countries. These nations were home to many of those attending until, driven out by armed conflict, persecution, or other disasters, they began a new life thousands of miles away in the Quad Cities, a group of neighboring cities and other communities flanking the Mississippi River in western Illinois and eastern Iowa.

Once inside the Nature Center, many festival-goers were drawn to the squeals of excitement coming from a room where refugees were reconnecting with family members back home. The American Red Cross serving Central and Southern Illinois Region was providing free phone calls to loved ones in countries outside the United States.

Katiusca Cespedes speaks to a cousin in Cuba while waiting for her mother to come to the phone.

Katiusca Cespedes speaks to a cousin in Cuba while waiting for her mother to come to the phone.

While some of those squeals—and tears, as Felix had predicted—did in fact come from Katiusca, she was not the only family member showing strong emotions after reconnecting with relatives. Norge later explained to an interpreter how he had been able to speak with his mother in Cuba for the first time in months, fill her in on happenings in the family and get caught up on the lives of those back home. When asked how it felt to be able to talk with her, he choked back tears and responded with one word.


Reconnecting Families Casework: How One Lead Led to Another

Restoring Family Links casework is done by volunteers and staff all of the US and the world. This story comes from the Los Angeles Region.

Restoring Family Links casework is done by volunteers and staff all of the US and the world. This story comes from the Los Angeles Region.

Story by Carmela Burke, Volunteer, Los Angeles, CA

As we were leaving their headquarters, the supervisor at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said “You’re going to be like detectives.”

Indeed, as caseworkers for the Restoring Family Links program of the American Red Cross, we pounded the pavement like detectives on behalf of someone in Cuba who wants to send a message to a family member in Los Angeles. 

Restoring Family Links (RFL) is a worldwide network tasked to find family members internationally who have been separated due to war, disaster, migration, or other humanitarian emergencies.  Often, amid confusion and chaos, the words “I am alive” may be all that is needed to ease the minds of loved ones.  The global Red Cross Movement helps by reconnecting families.

The following is a summary of some of the work involved in this casework.

Caseworkers Carmela Burke and Doug Wiita with Casework Supervisor, Kerry Khan, reviewing the case on file.

Caseworkers Carmela Burke and Doug Wiita with Casework Supervisor, Kerry Khan, reviewing the case on file.

RFL staff at American Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, DC sent a Red Cross Message to caseworkers in Los Angeles.  Red Cross Messages are used to facilitate communication of family news when normal means of connection are unavailable. Initial information given to caseworkers indicated that the sought person has mental health issues, and could be homeless, living in a shelter downtown.

During our team’s workgroup session on May 13, 2015, caseworkers continued the search by starting a phone-tree call-down of homeless shelters, mental health clinics, post offices and hospitals within the County. Many of the groups did not have the name of the person we were looking for in their database while some declined to provide information based on confidentiality issues.  One agency confirmed that the person stayed at their facility until August 2014 after which they lost contact with the person.

After handling the search online and on the phone, the case required our volunteers to conduct the search on foot.  On May 14, caseworkers Doug Wiita and Carmela Burke mapped their route to follow up on contact conversations and distribute RFL information.

First stop: Catholic Charities Brownson House, one of the community centers of Catholic Charities serving low-income and homeless individuals.  While the database name search yielded no results, staff agreed to post information about our search.

Next Stop: Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) in the mid-Wilshire district.  LAHSA is a city-county agency empowered to address homelessness in the city and county of Los Angeles.  We were told that the person we were looking for is not in their directory of homeless individuals.  In addition to the homeless shelters on downtown’s Skid Row, LAHSA suggested we contact the police department and county morgue.

Caseworker Doug Wiita and Supervisor Kerry Khan look over a map of Los Angeles to identify locations to search.

Caseworker Doug Wiita and Supervisor Kerry Khan look over a map of Los Angeles to identify locations to search.

Final stop: Skid Row, a 4-mile-54-block neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles.  Several social service agencies are based in the area including the Weingart Center, Union Rescue Mission, Midnight Mission, and the Los Angeles Mission.  In a July 2014 article in the Los Angeles Times, “local officials said in 2013 that 54,000 people in Los Angeles city and county were homeless.”  

We walked to all the aforementioned Skid Row shelters.  All but one agreed to scan their database as well as share information about RFL and our search.  A shelter employee pointed out that the Los Angeles Mission might be a lead because of that shelter’s strong connection to the Cuban community. 

At the Mission, search results found someone with the same last name but a different first name.  The supervisor then asked one of the shelter workers if he had heard of the sought person.  Our eyes lit up when the worker nodded “Si.”  To verify, we asked the age of his friend.  His approximation matched our information. The employee also knew of family abroad and that our sought person had run into some trouble with law enforcement.

Next step:  Our RFL supervisor examined a State of California database of individuals incarcerated in state prisons and county jails. While there were several with the same name, none matched the other details related to our sought person.  Caseworker Wiita said, “It is very difficult to locate a homeless person in Los Angeles.  We intend to follow up with the District Attorney, Public Defender, and the Courts to continue to pursue other avenues of inquiry.  We hope that we can indeed connect one family member to another.”

Searches like this are taking place all over the world. From Kenyan Red Cross volunteers biking through Dadaab refugee camp trying to reconnect loved ones with family scattered around the world; to German Red Cross workers searching for documentation on the fate of those who died during the Holocaust; to Mexican Red Crossers providing phone calls to migrants with no other way of communicating with their family – the Red Cross and Red Crescent is there to alleviate the human suffering caused by not knowing the whereabouts and wellbeing of loved ones.

Every year, the American Red Cross helps reconnect over 5,000 families. International Services caseworkers at the Los Angeles Region currently have at least 6 cases on their docket. For more information on Restoring Family Links and the International Services Program of the American Red Cross, visit

For involvement opportunities with the Los Angeles Region, visit

Red Cross Reconnects a Father with his Daughter

Story by Angela Morris, Community Services Specialist, Kingsport, Tennessee

Thirty five years ago, a young man whose political views did not match that of his government in Cuba chose to try to make a new life for himself. He applied for and received permission to leave, but his family stayed behind. After several years in Costa Rica, Nelson Perez, came to America in 1986 settling in Tampa, Florida.  At that time, he tried to bring his daughter Mercedes over. He filed the paperwork and paid the lawyers, but nothing happened.

While living in Florida, Nelson met and married his wife, Wanda. Together, they had three daughters and now have seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.  Nelson and his daughters in Cuba communicated with each other until 2008 when he and Wanda moved to Tennessee. For unknown reasons, contact was completely lost during the move and could not be re-established. He has had a good life here, but could never forget about the daughters he left behind in Cuba, Jaquelin, now 38 and Mercedes, now 45. 

Meanwhile, Mercedes wanted to reconnect with her father, so she reached out to the Cuban Red Cross. The American Red Cross was contacted and began the search for Nelson Perez. One of the bits of information uncovered was a phone number in Tennessee. A message left at that number resulted in the reunification of a father and his daughters. After many years of uncertainty, Nelson was excited when the American Red Cross contacted him stating his daughter, Mercedes, wanted to reestablish contact. 

Completely unaware that the Red Cross has a program to help reconnect families separated by conflict, disaster, migration and other humanitarian emergencies, Nelson was amazed when we contacted him. When asked what he would tell people who had lost contact with their relatives due to conflict, he said, “Call the Red Cross!”

Nelson is now in constant contact with his daughters, catching up on what has been going on in their lives and getting to know his 17 year old grandson.  His family wants to come to America, but until they can do so, Nelson plans to visit them in Cuba. The trip is very expensive and the process is complicated, but he is already working on gathering the funds and papers together!

When asked how he felt when he received the news that Mercedes wanted to reestablish contact, Nelson stated he had missed everything and had felt a lot of stress since leaving Cuba. A lot of sentimental memories returned, but overall he felt, “very joyful—like we had given him $100,000.”

As Nelson was leaving, he turned and commented that his heart was full. I have to admit, after meeting him and seeing with my own eyes how happy he was—so was mine.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 12/13/2014-12/19/2014

Do you follow @intlfamilylinks (Restoring Family Links’ account) on Twitter? See an interesting article but just don’t have the time to read it? “This Week in RFL News” is a weekly blog segment that highlights and summarizes some of the news items posted by RFL’s twitter.

International Migrants Day: This week, the United Nations recognized International Migrants Day which commemorates the adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The day is a day to recognize the contributions made by migrants to the societies in which they settle as well as draw attention to the increasing plight many face when immigrating. It is estimated that there are 232 million migrants internationally today, surviving and struggling in a variety of political, cultural, and contextual situations. Two contexts that are often in the news (at least in the US) are migration in the Mediterranean and the Americas.

Before I delve into those two topics, I would like to highlight the work of the Red Cross Movement to protect migrants and alleviate their suffering. As an impartial, neutral organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross works neither to encourage or prevent migration, but rather to ensure that vulnerable migrants and their families are given the protection they are due. This includes promoting alternatives to detention, and when migrants are detained, ensuring they are done so in a way that preserves and promotes human dignity. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is also committed to protecting vulnerable migrants, and for the International Migrants Day, released a call to action for the protection of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

That brings me to the European/Mediterranean migration context. Over the past year, the Mediterranean has become the deadliest border in the world for migrants with thousands of people fleeing crises in the home nations for safety of Europe. Overcrowding of boats, rough waters, and the increasingly dangerous behavior of smugglers has led to almost weekly shipwrecks. In response the Italian government launched Mare Nostrum, an operation to rescue migrants from the sea. This effort recently came to an end and a smaller operation was started by the European Union. However, individuals have also taken up the mantel of protecting migrants, including one couple who have saved 3,000 lives.

Even once migrants have reached European shores, their struggles do not end. Many are trying to reach Western and Northern European nations where they already have family, yet European law dictates that they have to seek asylum in the nation at which they first arrive. This has lead migrants and Southern European nations to protest current policies and call for immigration reform, respectively. Even those who make it to Western Europe, but are trying to reach the United Kingdom have become bottlenecked in Calais, France. For International Migrants Day, one news story highlights the days, miles, and struggles of three migrants' journeys who are now waiting at the port to enter the UK.

In the Americas, a lot of the news over the past few months has focused on the increase in unaccompanied child migrants fleeing Central America for the United States. While their narratives and the work of organizations to help them are critical for ensuring the protection of vulnerable children, it is also important to highlight other migration issues in the region. The treacherous conditions migrants face when crossing into the US has led to many migrant deaths along the border. In Texas, the lack of a centralized tracking system and funding means many migrant remains go unidentified, placed in unmarked mass migrant graves leaving loved ones without the knowledge of their fate. In response, many organizations have begun providing humanitarian assistance to migrants in the borderlands. This includes putting water along migrant routes, providing medical aid when possible, and helping to meet the family communication needs of migrants.

As immigration reform continues to be a “hot topic” in the US, it is important to remember the daily plight faced by many migrants throughout the Americas. It is important to remember that migrants are humans with human needs and rights. It is important to remember and support the work of organizations ensuring needs are met and rights are protected. And it is important to remember all these things when policy is discussed and changed.

Cuba Announcement: This Wednesday, President Obama announced that he plans on opening diplomatic relations with Cuba. This will bring an end to a decades long embargo that cut off Cuba from the US and limited the communication and visitation ability of Cuban Americans to their families remaining on the island nation. A generational divide marked the majority of reactions from the Cuban American community with younger generations welcoming the opening of ties while sentiments of anger and betrayal were expressed from those who were born in Cuba. Over the years, the Red Cross has stepped in to facilitate communication between family members divided between the two nations when regular means of communication became unavailable. It is our hope that the opening of diplomatic relations better allows for loved ones to communicate and interact with one another.