Springing Into Action with Restoring Family Links

Story by Whitney Trumble, Lead Volunteer for Outreach & Grants, Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago & Northern Illinois Region Restoring Family Links (RFL) Program is gearing up for a busy spring! From World Refugee Day festivities to ramping up our outreach efforts, we are excited about making connections and helping separated families restore communication.

We kicked off our outreach season on Friday, March 6th. In honor of International Women’s Day, students, non-profit professionals, international development practitioners and organizations throughout the Chicagoland area met to discuss women’s health issues at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 3rd Annual Global Health Symposium. Entitled, Women's Health: Rewriting the Goals, the symposium discussed topics ranging from nutrition to the uses of big data (a panel which included our very own Harley Jones, Regional Chief Operating Officer). RFL staff and volunteers set up a booth to interact with symposium participants in between sessions. Through this, we were able to reach more than 25 interested individuals, and make connections with a number of organizations serving immigrant and refugee populations.

The weekend of RFL continued on Sunday, March 8, where the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society invited us to speak at an informational session for its Reunification Program. We spoke to more than 50 participants from Iraq, Syria, Burma and other countries interested in bringing relatives to the United States, and received a great deal of positive feedback regarding our services. We look forward to working with some of the clients who expressed interest in opening a case to search for loved ones they were separated from while fleeing conflict.

The following Friday, March 13th, we had the honor of celebrating International Women’s Day with our refugee community, planned by a network of refugee service provider agencies, including the American Red Cross. The women received a day of relaxation and community that included massages, henna tattoos, manicures, crafts, healthy snacks, a free-style dance party, instructor-led Zumba and giveaways from the Red Cross: RFL key chains, RFL pens and Emergency First Aid kits. It was a fun day to spend with these amazing women, and an exciting opportunity for the RFL program to support this important day within the refugee community and our core partners.

These three events mark the start of what looks to be an exciting spring for RFL outreach. We have begun a concerted push to recruit new volunteers, making efforts to reach out to our Latino as well as Iraqi and Syrian communities as our focus. We are also excited about programming for this year’s World Refugee Day: in addition to the annual soccer tournament and potluck celebration at Foster Beach Soccer Fields, planned in collaboration with fifteen partner organizations, we are also planning to host a cultural awareness event in the heart of Chicago’s Loop at the Daley Center Plaza on June 15th.

All this outreach helps spread the word about the reconnecting families services of the Red Cross. Hopefully, by sharing this information with more communities and partners, the Chicago & Northern Illinois Region will be able to help reconnect even more loved ones separated by conflict, disaster, migration and other humanitarian emergencies.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 03/07/2015 - 03/13/2015

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.

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Syria: This week we highlighted some of the ongoing problems facing Syrian refugees. With the war in Syria entering its fifth year, millions of displaced people continue to suffer from a lack of humanitarian aid. International President of Médecins Sans Frontières, Joanne Liu, describes how her organization faces a series of political and social obstacles in providing medical services to the region. In addition to facing physical threats, Syrians are also in danger of losing part of their cultural heritage. With ISIS and other military forces continuing to operate in Syria, fighting has led to a transnational effort to protect cultural and historical artifacts that lie within the combat zone. 

Outside of Syria, the country’s neighbors also face numerous obstacles due to the massive influx of refugees requiring assistance within their borders.  As the war drags on, deeper issues outside of meeting basic living standards have arisen. With much of the adult Syrian men back at home, a large proportion of refugees are women and children. As a vulnerable population group, they have been subject to numerous challenges including forced prostitution, child labor, and religious persecution. In Turkey, for example, only 1/3 of Syrian youth are receiving a formal education – raising fears of a poorly educated generation entering the labor market.  Unless there are some radical new developments the situation will only get worse since the total number of Syrians forced out of their country could exceed 5 million by the end of the year (from roughly 4 million now).

Unaccompanied Children - Pressing obstacles and issues still exist for minors around the globe – specifically youth who have been separated from their families. In the US, research has indicated that some states are far more likely to deport unaccompanied minor migrants who have entered the country than others (i.e. 30% in Georgia vs. 9% in Florida). These differences in court processing present an interesting situation regarding federal oversight of state policies. In cases where migrant youth have obtained legal status there have already been successful stories of their acclimation into American society.

Globally, hundreds of fleeing minors have perished during treks across the Mediterranean, facing deceitful traffickers, extortionists, and the ferocity of the high seas. This week, the UN announced proposals for actions European nations should take to address their migration crises, including meeting the needs of unaccompanied children. Organizations such as Save the Children have already been mandated by respective governments to provide services to youth that land on European shores.  

International Women's Day-  This past week celebrated International Women’s Day, with Restoring Family Links giving a special shout out to current and former female activists.  This week, a group of women announced plans to walk across the demilitarization zone between the Koreas in a call for peace and “to help unite Korean families tragically separated by an artificial man-made division.” In addition, we highlighted the ongoing sociopolitical struggle in much of South East Asia – Burma in particular – where Zin Mar Aung, a female rights activist who has spent 11 years in prison for protesting government policies, continues to promote democracy and increased female agency within the region. We also honored Clara Barton, a powerful social agent and founder of the American Red Cross in her quest to alleviate human suffering and promote principles that affirm the intrinsic value of every person within society.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Story by Wendy Ward, National Headquarters, Senior Advocacy and Program Policy Officer

The Mirabal Sisters

The Mirabal Sisters

For 30 years, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic as a brutal dictator. On November 25, 1960, three women who opposed his regime were murdered in a sugarcane field at the hands of Trujillo’s secret police.  The Mirabal sisters, - Minerva, Maria and Patria - were wives and mothers who led a resistance movement to overthrow Trujillo.  They lost their lives in pursuit of social justice and positive political transformation in their country.

Nearly 40 years later, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  This designation is based on a long-standing tradition of women activists using the date that marks the assassination of the Mirabal sisters to raise awareness of the issue of violence against women.  Ending this violence is essential to defend fundamental human rights.

Violence against women has been characterized as a “pandemic.” Up to 70 percent of women in some countries will have faced violence in her lifetime.  Women are killed by family members and intimate partners.  They are trafficked and sexually exploited.  As children, they are married off, acutely vulnerable to physical abuse.  Female genital mutilation is pervasive in 29 countries in the Middle East and Africa; and in many parts of the world, women and girls who have experienced sexual violence face being shunned because of cultural taboos.

As someone who works for an organization that responds to international emergencies, it’s wrenching to learn about violence against women that occurs in armed conflicts and natural disasters.  These events cause deep instability, and too many women and girls already live under volatile conditions. Where gender inequalities existed before, they can intensify during emergencies in the absence of structure and order, and the things that help us meet our basic needs.

Steps can be taken during emergencies and recovery to prevent, mitigate and respond to violence against women and girls.  Unaccompanied women and children should be registered, and their health and wellbeing safeguarded.  Programs and services that address violence against women can be activated as part of the emergency response.  Women must be involved in post-emergency decision-making and their perspectives integrated into recovery planning.  

We have to continue talking about the problem. The American Red Cross recently hosted a panel event  to discuss ways to combat sexual violence in Syria and Iraq, where incidents of sexual violence in armed conflict are being reported.  One of the key themes of the conversation was addressing stigma in a complicated regional context.

Despite stereotypes of powerlessness, women are incredibly resilient in the face of emergencies.  Resilience is a concept embedded in elements of the new proposed Sustainable Development Goals.  These goals, which will be adopted in 2015, include one that focuses specifically on achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls. 

To meet this goal, countries must end all forms of discrimination against women and girls; eliminate all forms of violence against them, including trafficking and sexual exploitation, and eliminate practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation.  The means to implement this goal depends on a global partnership that cuts across all borders and through all sectors of society to engage all of us.

Today we raise awareness of this scourge of violence against women and girls.  We must collectively join efforts to stop it.  I hope that in a generation, our children – particularly our girls – can honor the Mirabal sisters’ legacy without having to recognize violence against women as an enduring reality.

On Women and Families: Making the Connection

Story by Nadia Kalinchuk, National Headquarters, Outreach Coordinator and Caseworker for the Americas

March 8th marked International Women’s Day, next week is women’s studies week, and this month we celebrate women’s history.  With these days and weeks that make up a month on my mind, I have had time to reflect on the work of reconnecting families and the role of women, girls and migration. 

In the last few weeks, two reports came out about unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the US. Both provide perspectives to a phenomenon that has been unfolding since 2011: the surge of unaccompanied minors.  A report by Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) examines the complex legal system the minors encounter once they are in custody.  The second UNHCR report investigates the reasons for migration by interviewing 400 unaccompanied minors.  Through these interviews with minors from El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, the report reveals that children are fleeing violence and harm involving both interpersonal and criminal actors.  With projections of unaccompanied minors reaching as high as 60,000 this year, the importance of these issues cannot garner enough attention.     .

Picture of Elsy Nohelia Ayala from "More Invisible and More Vulnerable" report by Global Press Journal.

Picture of Elsy Nohelia Ayala from "More Invisible and More Vulnerable" report by Global Press Journal.

Upon reading more on women and migration, I stumbled onto this anecdote from a series examining migration: “Elsy Nohelia Ayala, 24, begins to cry when she realizes she forgot photos of her two children when she left her home in Honduras headed for the U.S. Ayala did not want to leave her children, but her mother asked her to accompany her brother in fleeing the country after gang members threatened to kill him.” 

To me this story clearly reflects the choices faced by women and girls fleeing violence and the mothers who encourage their children to leave.  These choices are not without sacrifice or anguish, and in many circumstances, a family matriarch is compelling the family to stay together or trying to find the safest way for her children to escape a dangerous situation. 

In my daily life as a mother raising two daughters, I find that there is a need to not only discuss how these issues of migration and protection affect women and girls, but to also link these discussions to actions that improve outcomes. Yesterday, during the launch of the report of the unaccompanied minor, I sat in a room full of women.  It was a comment that my male colleague made note of, “always so many women at these events.”  I looked behind me and agreed, as I saw women peeling off their coats and multipurpose bags, intended to carry laptops, diapers and wipes.  Many, if not all of the women in the room, were and are working for the protection of the child.  This is an action they commit to everyday, improving the lives and outcomes of children, advocating for their legal rights as well as access to important psychosocial support.  Their names may never be heard on the news, and they may never receive recognition, but they do what they can daily to improve the outcomes of unaccompanied children.

On this international women’s day, I celebrate the strength of women and girls trying to find safety, those working to keep their families together and the women advocating for the social support and understanding needed to help unaccompanied and separated children.

Equality for Women is Progress for All

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Story by Sarah Rothman, Western Washington Region, International Services and Language Bank Manager

Saturday, March 8th marked International Women’s Day.  This day of honoring women made me think about the many women that have impacted my life by shaping the world I live in or influencing the person that I have become. I think about my mom, who is the hardest working and most loving person I have ever known. She taught me to be accepting of everyone and to see the best in people. I think of women that have mentored me and guided me on my journey as an emerging leader. I think of women I have met all over the world who face extraordinary challenges on a daily basis and find ways to persevere and become role models in their families and communities. I think of women who I have never met but who have sacrificed everything and fought battles to pave the way for generations of women to come. They knew all along that equality for women is progress for all.

It’s hard to imagine a world without these fierce and inspiring women. One woman, in particular, changed the world during her time on this earth. Her legacy has impacted my life in more ways than I will ever know.

You have probably heard the name Clara Barton.  She is remembered as many things: a teacher, a nurse, an entrepreneur, a humanitarian, and a female government employee. She is probably most well-known, at least among those I associate with, as the founder of the American Red Cross.

Clara was born on December 25, 1821 in Massachusetts. At an early age, she found ways to be of service to others and earned the reputation of being a hard worker. She started her career as a teacher, always demanding the same pay as her male colleagues. After opening and successfully growing New Jersey’s first free school, the board passed Clara over and instead, hired a man to be the head of the school. Resentful and frustrated, Clara left for Washington, D.C. and was hired on as one of the first female government employees, receiving a salary equal to her male counterparts. She worked as a patent clerk until a new commissioner demoted all female employees due to the popular opinion that women in the workplace deprived men of rightful employment. 

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When the American civil war broke out in 1861, Clara arranged to have a substitute work for half her salary while she drew the other half in order to pay rent, organize supplies, and gather support for affected soldiers. Clara spent many sleepless nights caring for soldiers on both sides of the war. Although women were not allowed on the battlefront, Clara gained the trust of officials and was allowed to serve troops on the frontline, earning herself the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” She nearly lost her life when a bullet passed through her sleeve and killed the wounded man she was attending.

After Clara’s brother and nephew were killed, she started searching for missing soldiers. With the support and endorsement of President Abraham Lincoln, Clara established the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army (which I would highly recommend visiting if you are in D.C.), where she received and answered over 63,000 letters to families of soldiers and identified 22,000 missing men. She also traveled to locate and mark graves of 13,000 soldiers. Her initiative to bring about closure and reconnect loved ones was an early form of the Restoring Family Links program. 

During a visit to Europe, Clara learned about the International Red Cross movement and the Geneva Conventions. She returned to Washington, D.C. determined to bring this movement to the United States. She vigorously lobbied for the government to ratify the Geneva Conventions and to establish the American Red Cross. She added the concept of the Red Cross being involved in disaster relief, in addition to wartime responsibilities of the movement, which was later added to the Geneva Conventions as the “American Amendment.” After much resistance from multiple administrations and her continued persistence, the United States signed the international treaty and ratified laws that brought a shimmer of humanity to the horrors of war. Clara succeeded through her powers of persuasion during a time when women couldn’t even vote. As one of the few female voices in a male dominated world, Clara worked against impossible odds and proved that equality for women is progress for all. Clara Barton then founded the American Red Cross and became the first president of the organization.

Clara continued to face many challenges throughout her career as she ran the organization in the first couple decades of its existence. Despite these challenges, she impacted countless lives through her own efforts and those of the American Red Cross. Throughout her entire life, Clara was a fearless leader in the humanitarian movement as well as the movement towards equality for women. Although she hasn't been on this earth for almost a century, it’s hard to imagine a world without her legacy.