A First-Hand Refugee Experience

Israeli bombing of Beirut, 2006.

Israeli bombing of Beirut, 2006.

Story by Shannon Vance, SAF and International Services Intern, Peoria, IL

It was the summer of 2006 and Allen Ghareeb, a current 22-year-old medical student, had been living in the United States for about four years. Originally from Beirut, Lebanon, Allen’s parents decided it was best to raise their children in the United States. They made sure to stay close with the family they had left behind in Lebanon by visiting every summer. It was during one of these visits that Allen experienced first-hand what most Americans only hear about on the news. At the age of 13, he was in a refugee situation.

Hezbollah, an Islamist militant group based in Lebanon, had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Hours later, Allen and his family first started to hear the bombs drop. Quickly they realized something bigger than expected was happening. In retaliation, the Israeli government had begun dropping bombs over Beirut. They were given 24 hours to evacuate the city and spent the next week fleeing from place to place around Lebanon.

As the bombing became worse, the roadways out of the country were destroyed and the airport was attacked. “We realized it was time to leave Beirut when it got to the point where, when my little sister was sleeping, we would have to cover her entire body with blankets to protect her from the shattered glass from the bomb impacts.” His family fled to the western coast in order to avoid the majority of the danger. A few days later, when the bombing died down, his family headed to the US Embassy to seek help. 

Only allowed one duffel bag for five people, the Ghareeb’s were told they would be evacuated on a military helicopter eight hours later. From there, they would be flown to the island nation of Cyprus. “Since it happened so fast, we couldn’t say goodbye to the majority of our family. [It was] really upsetting since the war made [us] question when the next time we would see them was.”

Shuffled from a crowded helicopter to a convention center filled with cots, Allen remembers being given a plastic toothbrush. “It was then that I felt like a refugee for the first time. We were dirty, scared, tired and didn’t really know what to expect.” They had officially joined the waiting list of people to be flown back to the US.

After two weeks of being surrounded by uncertainty, destruction and death, Allen and his family made it back to the United States. Because they were the only ones with US citizenship, the rest of his Lebanese family had to stay behind and fight to make it through the conflict. “I lost a cousin during an airstrike close to the Syrian border. It is definitely an unsettling feeling when you have to leave the rest of your family in danger. There is a sense of guilt associated with that.”

Referring to himself as a “neo-refugee,” Allen recognizes just how uniquely lucky he was. He had another country to help him back to safety. Many refugees, in Lebanon and elsewhere, do not have this luxury. Being able to call the United States home afforded him a certain sense of protection that he is extremely grateful for. His passport gave him rights and privileges most of his family didn’t have. 

While Allen’s family might not have needed the help of the American Red Cross, thousands of refugees every year do. The Restoring Family Links program provides families that have been separated by an international disaster or conflict one of the things they need the most: a way to communicate with family members they have lost touch with.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 01/31/2015 - 02/06/2015

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.

Red Cross Reconnecting Families: Each year, the International Red Cross Movement reconnects thousands of loved ones separated by conflict, disaster, migration, and other humanitarian emergencies. A recent study done by the University of Alberta found that resettled refugees who were able to maintain contact with their family were able to build their own resiliency while adapting to their new lives in Canada. When contact has been lost, the network of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies is there to re-establish that piece of the resiliency puzzle.

And while every Red Cross provides reconnecting family services, each society has developed its strengths, often based upon the populations it serves. Because of the high risk for tsunamis and earthquakes, the Chilean Red Cross is well-prepared to reconnect families separated domestically by natural disaster. In Tanzania, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Tanzanian Red Cross facilitate communication between families in refugee camps and their loved ones back in their country of origin. And both the Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David) in Israel and the American Red Cross continue to reconnect families separated by the Holocaust and provide them with information on the fate of their loved ones. All this work continues globally to help alleviate the human suffering caused by the loss of family communication.

Displacement in Nigeria: Restoring Family Links is also an important aspect of the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. Many loved ones have become separated while escaping violence in northeastern Nigeria enacted upon their villages by Boko Haram. Last year, the conflict came to international attention when the group kidnapped 270 schoolgirls (giving rise to Twitter diplomacy or Twiplomacy). While media attention has been pulled elsewhere, however, the conflict continues. This week, the BBC reported on an attack by Boko Haram on the town of Baga earlier this year. Many of the town’s residents fled the village, escaping the violence by wading through Lake Chad and taking shelter on secluded islands. This has been a particular challenge for the humanitarian organizations trying to assist the displaced.