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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An Intern's Experience with Reconnecting Families: Reaching Out

Restoring Family Links Interns (left to right) Lainey Schmidt, Megan Norris, Victoria Anderson, and Jackie Ramsey

Restoring Family Links Interns (left to right) Lainey Schmidt, Megan Norris, Victoria Anderson, and Jackie Ramsey

Story by Lainey Schmidt, Intern, Washington, DC

When I started my internship at the American Red Cross Restoring Family Links (RFL) program this summer, it actually was not my first introduction to the reconnecting families work of the Red Cross. I had spent last summer interning with the program at the Red Cross in Phoenix, Arizona. With that internship, I got on-the-ground experience as a caseworker and also conducted outreach through presentations, event planning, and partnership building.  Through it all, I fell in love with the program because I was able to understand how much our work impacted others’ lives and how valuable our efforts really are.  So, when I got the chance to come to National Headquarters this summer and complete an internship with the same program, I jumped at the opportunity!

Though the projects I have worked on this summer have been incredibly varied, most of them are related to outreach.  While in Phoenix last year, I really learned how important outreach efforts are for RFL.  We can only provide reconnection services to those who are aware that the American Red Cross offers international tracing and messaging, so making sure we promote our services, locally and nationally, is essential.  As I have learned, though, that is easier said than done.

A lot of my work this summer was focused on creating Outreach Activity Guides for use by American Red Cross chapter offices.  The hope for these guides is to provide step-by-step instructions and checklists to make it easy for anyone involved in the program to conduct outreach in their community. 

I am lucky to have a unique perspective on these guides. Though I only spent a few months in the chapter, my experience there helped me understand what was most needed and what could be most helpful.  While actually being in a community is the most significant way to conduct outreach, our goal at National Headquarters is to provide the Chapters with the most useful resources to make those efforts easier.  At the same time, I worked on other projects related to outreach; I helped develop materials for our World Refugee Day Reception here in DC, I created RFL-related games, and have been working on updating training materials for our outreach workshop.

I feel so lucky to have had the experience of working directly with clients in Phoenix, and later to have been able to use this experience at a more macro-level.  In the chapter, I was able to spend time on-the-ground as a caseworker and outreach worker, experiencing the everyday excitement of working with Restoring Family Links. At National Headquarters, I have been able to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making a program like this successful. 

Working in these different capacities for the past two summers has not only given me an eye-opening view of the refugee situation here in the United States, but has also allowed me to participate in work that is fulfilling, given me a job that I look forward to going to every day, and given me a chance to gain many perspectives on international humanitarian work.  While at Headquarters, the RFL team has provided me with countless opportunities to learn about every facet of their work.  Even more than that, though, I have been able to take advantage of being in DC and learn about the American Red Cross International Services Department as a whole.  If I was not already convinced that international humanitarian work was what I wanted to pursue, I would have been after five minutes here, hearing how passionate everyone is about the Red Cross mission.

An Intern’s Experience with Reconnecting Families: Spreading the Word

Restoring Family Links interns (left to right) Lainey Schmidt, Megan Norris, Victoria Anderson, and Jackie Ramsay

Restoring Family Links interns (left to right) Lainey Schmidt, Megan Norris, Victoria Anderson, and Jackie Ramsay

Story by Jackie Ramsay, Intern, Washington, DC

When I first came across the opportunity to intern with Restoring Family Links, I was basically in disbelief. As an International Relations major with a huge passion for communications, the opportunity to intern with the outreach team was really all I could’ve hoped for as the position completely bridges together my two main interests. When I received the call that I was selected for the position, I stuttered so much I thought my offer would be retracted. I couldn't wait to be a part of the Red Cross mission that benefits individuals both domestically and around the world.

As an Outreach Intern, my day-to-day responsibilities revolve around social media, which include news monitoring for our Twitter, writing up “This Week in Restoring Family Links News” on the blog each week, and completing other projects to help improve outreach communications. My major project this summer was analyzing our Twitter activity from the past year in order to see how we can better interact with followers, alert more people of our services, and provide more engaging content.

During my first week, I remember sitting down with Jon while he explained to me that he spent two hours each morning looking for Twitter content (in addition to all of his other outreach responsibilities and assisting with Americas casework.) Besides how incredibly daunting this sounded to me at the time, I immediately recognized the dedication of the team to inform the community of the reconnecting families services of the Red Cross, and how important it was that I make this my primary mission for the summer.  

Ever since I was a kid, I've always loved to write, but I was never really sure why. Working as an Outreach Intern put my passion for writing into perspective, because I realized that I write to give others a voice – I chose to study International Relations because I believe all diverse populations deserve to be heard, and helping to make this happen is one of my main long-term aspirations. Tweeting about migrant and refugee crises around the world as well as briefly summarizing their experiences on “This Week in RFL” has been a small way for me to help well-deserving voices be heard. While I was able to explore and expand my interests, I was also able to inform others of global conflicts that create family separations, which are constantly occurring in the world every single day.

Years from now, when I look back on this experience, I know I’ll remember one moment distinctly: when the team gathered to plan for the upcoming year, Nadia Kalinchuk, who supports the migration portfolios of the American Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross in Washington, DC, made a comment that left not a dry eye in the room. She said that she was so lucky to be working with such an amazing team full of smiling, friendly faces who are immensely dedicated to their work and the Red Cross mission. After only two short months, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I am so blessed and honored to have been a part of such a wonderful family. 

After spending the past three years as a student of American University, I've realized that being a DC college student comes with a certain amount of responsibilities. It’s pretty normal for recent graduates of DC universities to have multiple internships under their belt, and because it’s so normal, it almost comes as an expectation rather than a privilege – and the word “fun” is often out of the question. Last week, I was catching up with an old classmate I hadn't seen in a while, and she asked about my internship experience this summer. After I told her about what I've been doing at the Red Cross, she said that my face was beaming the entire time. So, I think it’s safe to say that I’m one of the lucky ones. 

An Intern’s Experience with Reconnecting Families: Growing Personally and Professionally

Restoring Family Links Interns (left to right) Lainey Schmidt, Megan Norris, Victoria Anderson, and Jackie Ramsay

Restoring Family Links Interns (left to right) Lainey Schmidt, Megan Norris, Victoria Anderson, and Jackie Ramsay

Story by Victoria Anderson, Intern, Washington, DC

I remember the exact moment that I received my offer letter e-mail. I was on my way home from work on the metro, slumped from the busy Friday I was having. I opened my e-mail for the brief moment that I had internet while on the train and my smile was wider than it had ever been.

As a rising senior at American University, obtaining an internship is something expected from everyone. But as a transfer student from community college, it was harder for me since I had barely been in DC for a year. I thought I was the last person in this city who was going to get an internship, let alone one at the American Red Cross. But, here I am!  And I am so elated and grateful that I was given this opportunity by such a humble, loving, amazing group of people.

The specific role I have in the Restoring Family Links program is helping Mark Owens, our Africa and Middle East caseworker. He helps reconnect families separated by conflicts and other humanitarian emergencies throughout a region known for its instability. I knew it would be tough work because during my interview I was told that he had the largest case load.

So when I started, I got right to work. I had training sessions with the best of the best, Susan and Jessica. They taught me all about the database I would be working in. For two days I thought to myself, “this will be simple—I’ll probably just have some technical difficulties.”

I could not have been more wrong. Yes, technical difficulties were present but there were bigger problems—understanding the clients. On the fourth day as Mark took me through the database, I marveled at his expertise. All I thought was, “this guy knows so much!” Name patterns, conflict areas, languages, cultures and customs. Imagine knowing all of those things for 60 plus countries! I was amazed and continue to be. I have learned so much about the world through a database and the Restoring Family Links staff. While I gathered an immense amount of global knowledge interning here, I also learned a lot about my own backyard!

Early in the internship, the team went to a World Refugee Day event in Silver Spring, Maryland just outside of DC. Here, we set up phone booths for local refugees to call their loved ones back home. We also attended a meeting about refugees in the area.

This was perhaps the most enlightening meeting I have had since coming to DC. Several organizations talked about the work they were doing for local refugee communities. One organization helps resettle Ethiopian refugees coming to the United States another Salvadoran refugees. The figures they were throwing out astonished me! How had I lived in DC for so long, studying international relations no less, but had no idea that there was so much happening only an hour away from me? I was amazed and inspired—a consistent trend during my time here at the Red Cross.

As students, we expect internships to be mundane. We expect to copy papers and grab coffee for our bosses. Luckily for me, I never had that expectation. I knew that this team was going to make me work, and they did, but they also taught me more than I ever expected. From Katie and Anna, sharing stories about their AmeriCorps experiences, to Jon talking about grad school and Mark enabling me to learn about a new culture every day—I have grown both professionally and personally. I could not be more thankful that I had this experience when I did. Thank you RFL staff, you are all insanely amazing people. 

An Intern’s Experience with Reconnecting Families: Serving the Public

Restoring Family Links Interns (left to right) Lainey Schmidt, Megan Norris, Victoria Anderson, and Jackie Ramsay

Restoring Family Links Interns (left to right) Lainey Schmidt, Megan Norris, Victoria Anderson, and Jackie Ramsay

Story by Megan Norris, Intern, Washington, DC

When I first began my internship with the American Red Cross Restoring Family Links Program, I had no idea what to expect. I knew little about the program itself, aside from the idea that it reconnected families who had been previously separated. I quickly learned, however, that I’d only scratched the surface of their mission. Initially, I was under the impression that I’d be vicariously helping the people who help people find their families. Instead, I found myself directly involved in the communications that reconnected those who were separated by crisis, conflict, or migration. 

The Restoring Family Links Program exceeded my expectations to no end. My main responsibility was managing the Public Inquiry, which meant receiving daily emails with requests ranging from people looking for their immediate friends and family to people tracing their great grandparents’ whereabouts during and following World Wars I and II. Occasionally I’d get a few questions that I’d have to turn over to other organizations or Red Cross team members, but, for the most part, I was able to successfully forward the majority of inquiries on to local caseworkers, who would then consider the possibility of opening a tracing case.

I’ll never forget the case I received that made me realize just how powerful and meaningful the Reconnecting Families mission can be. It came from a man who was searching for the girl that his grandmother had housed and hidden during the Holocaust. He explained how it was so important to find this girl because she served as a symbol of hope for his entire family, who greatly suffered as a result of his grandmother’s courageous actions.

He turned to the American Red Cross because he had heard of what the Restoring Family Links Program can do, and he knew that we were his best bet at finding, or learning the fate of, the figure who continued to make his family’s suffering worthwhile after all these years. This inquiry made me realize, not only how significant the program was to those in need of its services, but also how fortunate we are to have such a strong team, both nationally and locally, to fall back on if such unfortunate circumstances were to ever occur to any of us.

This brings me to my favorite part of my experience: the team at National Headquarters itself. I couldn't have asked for a better group of mentors to work with who are not only inspiring with what they do, but also incredibly informative, supportive and dedicated. I really have to thank them for giving me the opportunity to work alongside them at an organization that has the ability to save families by instilling hope and security in a situation where those factors wouldn't normally exist.

If you asked me to explain my summer in one word, I wouldn't be able to, but I could pinpoint the single most important word that not only defines, but also encompasses the organization, team and mission: family.