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!

My Red Cross Story: Reconnecting with my Niece after 30 Years

Story by George Kantor
Edited by Patricia Billinger and Mike Dirks, Colorado Wyoming Region, Communications Team

George Kantor in his Denver home meeting with   Restoring Family Links volunteers  .

George Kantor in his Denver home meeting with Restoring Family Links volunteers.

My niece in Hungary and I skyped just the other day. It was the first time she could see me in over thirty years! She is now in her sixties in Ivanca, Hungary, and my life has led me to Denver with my wife Gretchen. I could not have reunited with her without the help of the Restoring Family Links program at the Red Cross.

My story of resettlement outside of my native country of Hungary began when I was discovered a stowaway without a passport or papers as on a British ship in the English Channel.

I was fleeing political instability after the Hungarian anti-communist uprising of 1956 and I feared for my personal security after being discovered as a messenger between student groups in Budapest and my grandparents’ town. When I fled Hungary, I left my mother and older sister behind.

I was nearly sixteen. I had escaped via a French contact to the European coast, then on to the ship to London. The ship’s officers were aware of what was happening in Eastern Europe and decided, “He’s made it this far, let him keep going!”

Although I remained in contact with some family while I continued my journey, I was completely severed from my family after my mother’s death in 1987. The mail system collapsed and it was nearly impossible to communicate efficiently. I received word of my mother’s death six months after the funeral.

George and his wife Gretchen looking at their first message from George's niece, Karolyne.

George and his wife Gretchen looking at their first message from George's niece, Karolyne.

During the 19 years I lived in Colorado, my wife Gretchen understood my unresolved, and hidden grief but encouraged me to try to reconnect. I am now in my early seventies and recently had a long and difficult recovery from surgery. It gave me perspective and I decided to return to Ivanca to investigate my past. I wanted to know what happened to my sister and find my niece.

In August 2013, I visited my mother’s grave and the old Inn that my family had operated. Kind residents led me to the town halls of my home village and the village where my sister reportedly lived. The secretary of the town hall even greeted me on a Sunday, which was gracious. I left word of my interest in finding my niece. It had been so long since I had been to Hungary and I strained to recall my native language. I was virtually a stranger. By the time I had to return to the United States, I had seen where my mother was put to rest, but I couldn’t trace my surviving relatives.

Robbe Sokolove, Restoring Family Links volunteer, and George Kantor reminisce about their first meeting.

Robbe Sokolove, Restoring Family Links volunteer, and George Kantor reminisce about their first meeting.

In February 2014, Red Cross volunteer Robbe Sokolove knocked on my door in Denver to tell me that the niece I had been searching for wanted to establish contact! I learned that several weeks after I left my hometown, my niece had also returned to my mother’s grave. The business owners and the town hall employee explained to her that I had been visiting from the US looking for relatives. It was a cultural imperative after decades of communism to keep my personal information and my niece’s privacy secure. However, during that period, Hungarians had always trusted the Red Cross. After my visit, they helped my niece send a message to me through the Red Cross humanitarian network.

I had always known of the Red Cross, but it was a shock to have them find me at a time when I needed help reconnecting with my family. I am still in shock that I can hear my niece’s voice and her excited laugh on the phone now that we are reconnected. She has even already written my wife Gretchen a hand written note in English. Although she could see me on our Skype call on May 13th, her computer did not have a camera. Now, I have to figure out how I can see her face for the first time in nearly thirty years.

The original message sent by George's niece through the Red Cross' Restoring Family Links program.

The original message sent by George's niece through the Red Cross' Restoring Family Links program.

For more stories from the Colorado Wyoming Region, please click here.