Our humanitarian action in the Philippines (January-May 2016)

Our humanitarian action in the Philippines (January-May 2016)

In central Mindanao and in the Sulu archipelago, fighting between government security forces and armed opposition groups led to temporary displacement of thousands of civilians. Meanwhile, sporadic hostilities continued between government security forces and the New People's Army in eastern Mindanao, leading to the protracted displacement of civilians; while pockets of clashes also occurred in parts of southern Luzon and Visayas regions.

"Families who flee from their homes again and again will not have stability in their lives. This remains a constant concern for us, as are the substantial number of people who are wounded by the fighting or by explosions in civilian areas," said Pascal Porchet, head of the ICRC delegation to the Philippines.

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Volunteer Champions Restoring Family Links Program Nationally and Locally

Story by Tiffany Cambridge-Williams, National Headquarters, Program Assistant

I would like to take the time to offer our sincerest thanks and appreciation to Viviana Cristian, our casework and outreach volunteer.  Viviana started with the Restoring Family Links team at National Headquarters back in October 2013 and has been a trailblazer for the program ever since.  Not only is she a headquarters volunteer but she is also a lead volunteer for the Restoring Family Links program and the Disaster Action Team for the Red Cross National Capital Area Region in Silver Spring, MD.  

In November 2013, the Restoring Family Links program experienced one of its largest caseload influxes after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines.   Viviana’s determination and compassion shown through.  She assisted the Silver Spring office in running a call center to ensure that the separated families were able to get the assistance they needed to reconnect with their loved ones.  With her assistance, we were able to process approximately 800 cases, in which the vast majority of families were reconnected.

Viviana has benefited our program by improving coordination efforts between the local chapter and national headquarters.  She has assisted in planning and carrying out several events for both entities, of particular note:  World Red Cross Day and World Refugee Day.

Viviana worked to coordinate four World Refugee Day events for both the local chapter and national headquarters. In this role she acted as a liaison between the chapter, national headquarters and several refugee resettlement agencies in the local community including the Ethiopian Community Development Council and International Rescue Committee. Thanks to her efforts, all four of the events went off without a hitch and were a huge success. 

Viviana is currently helping both National Headquarters and the Silver Spring chapter plan the upcoming World Red Cross Day on May 8, 2015. In the past, her involvement with the event has been a crucial aspect of its success. For this year’s event, she has already been a huge help in meeting with representatives from the chapter and headquarters to arrange the logistics and begin plans for an excellent celebration highlighting the global impact of the American Red Cross. 

Viviana’s hard work and dedication has also aided us in building our outreach efforts and making the processing of casework more efficient.  She is always looking for ways to assist and get involved in all aspects of the program.  In April of this year, she became a Restoring Family Links instructor out of a desire to increase the Restoring Family Links service delivery capacity in her chapter.

We are lucky to have such a passionate, personable and committed volunteer.  Viviana has shown time and again that she is devoted not only to the Restoring Family Links program but to the American Red Cross as a whole. 

Typhoon Haiyan and Restoring Family Links - One Year Later

Satellite phones were used to help people reach their family and loved ones during the emergency phase. A total 35, 230 individuals were assisted through restoring family links.  Photo credit: IFRC/Nichola Jones.

Satellite phones were used to help people reach their family and loved ones during the emergency phase. A total 35, 230 individuals were assisted through restoring family links. Photo credit: IFRC/Nichola Jones.

By Viviana Cristian, National Capital Region, Restoring Family Links Volunteer

It has been a year since Typhoon Haiyan affected everyone living in the Philippines as well as those watching the images unfolding on the screen. Once news of its devastation spread, people trying to contact their loved ones in the Philippines, as well as those who wanted to help with the response, started calling the American Red Cross. I was one of the Red Cross volunteers that were taking tracing requests and answering questions at the call center in Washington, DC metro area. 

We filled out many tracing inquiry forms that weekend, not only for our chapter, but for others as well.  When the call center in DC closed, Philadelphia took over for us, continuing the work of the Red Cross to alleviate the human suffering caused by loss communication with loved ones. All I could think during that time was “Let me help gather as much information as possible so that the Philippine Red Cross can find their family.”

In the following weeks, many of the cases for my chapter were closed because families were able to re-establish contact without the help of the Red Cross. Many reconnected with their loved ones through the internet, cell phone, or by traveling to the Philippines and finding them at their new location. Even when they re-established contact on their own, the client would thank me and Red Cross for all our help. It was important for them to know that if they weren’t able to establish contact, there was an organization that could help them do so. As a volunteer, it was gratifying to hear that.

This week, I saw several updates from American Red Cross on the extent to which we were able to help the Philippine Red Cross and those affected by the Typhoon. 59,000 families were given cash assistance so they could buy what they needed to rebuild homes or buy seeds for their farms. It was great to see how the American Red Cross has supported the Philippine Red Cross to provide lifesaving assistance and continue to work together in the recovery process to help rebuild communities. These two national societies are empowering Filipinos with job training, knowledge of disaster preparedness, and a means to continue with their respective livelihoods.     

Both national societies also worked together to reconnect families. I know from my volunteer work with the Restoring Family Links program at the American Red Cross National Headquarters that the Philippines Red Cross worked extensively to find those who were missing, to provide the means for them to contact their families (one way being the International Family Links website), and to keep the American Red Cross updated on each case.

The American Red Cross also worked hard calling clients and letting them know of any updates. What stuck with me is when clients, whose families had lost their homes, still thanked the Red Cross because they were able to find their family members. All that mattered is that they could talk to their loved ones. That is the joy of reconnecting families.

This Week in Restoring Family Links News 8/23/2014-8/29/2014

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 Day of the Disappeared: It’s rare that I only cover one news item that was shared on social media during the week, but this is an extraordinarily important topic! International Day of the Disappeared is recognized every year on August 30th. It is a day set aside to draw attention to those who have gone missing because of conflict, disaster, and migration; and the work of organizations around the world to learn their fate and support families of the missing. Its impetus came the work of Latin American organizations actively working against enforced disappearances in the region, but has grown to honor those who have gone missing around the globe, from conflicts in the Western Balkans to disasters in the Philippines.

Many organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), now work on issues of the missing. International humanitarian law dictates that states are obliged to clarify the fate or whereabouts of people who have gone missing. The ICRC supports this work in many places around globe, from Colombia, to the former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka.

Due to the unique circumstances in which people go missing, their work varies from place to place. In Colombia, the ICRC works to trace those who have gone missing as well as improve national systems for identifying remains found in anonymous gravesites. In Bosnia, they have helped advocate for legal mechanisms to honor families of the missing. Regardless of their level of involvement in uncovering the fate of the disappeared themselves, the ICRC works to support and advocate on behalf of families of the missing.

Other Red Cross Red Crescent societies also work on issues of the missing through the Restoring Family Links program. The Canadian Red Cross often works with its refugee population to search for loved ones who went missing while fleeing conflict in their home nation. The American Red Cross and its partner organizations work with families of missing migrants to determine the fate of those who have disappeared within the US-Mexico borderlands.

Outside of the Red Cross Movement, many other organizations and family associations advocate on behalf of the missing. In Turkmenistan, families continue to pressure their government to release information concerning the fate of people disappeared over ten years ago. Similarly in Kashmir, protests have been organized around the International Day of the Disappeared to learn the fate of those who have gone missing in relation to conflict in the region.

And the stories shared here are just a drop in the bucket. For this year’s day of recognition, please take the time to learn more about issues of the missing and the incredible work being done to support families who continue to suffer from not knowing the fate of their loves ones.

More resources:

Amnesty International’s work against enforced disappearance

International Commission on Missing Persons work with governments on issues of the missing

Read about all of ICRC’s work on missing persons

Responding to Typhoon Haiyan: What it means to be a Red Crosser

Story by Jen Pierce, Northeast Pennsylvania Region, Service to the Armed Forces and International Services Director

Everyone who came to the Filipino Outreach event.

Everyone who came to the Filipino Outreach event.

The last few weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. I’m exhausted and drained.  Today, I’m taking time to answer a backlog of emails and knock out things from my To Do list, which have nothing to do with the Typhoon.  And I find it hard. I find it hard not to send one more email to one last lead that may know of yet another pocket of Filipino people in our region. I find it hard not to call or email my Filipino clients one last time to check that they are okay. My mind keeps drifting back to the information that our local Filipino families confided in us, like their feelings of fear regarding the safety of their relatives in the Philippines. Their feelings of helplessness.  Their sense of urgency in getting insulin for their sick mother.  Their sense of dread, that their loved ones are buried in the rubble, dead.  The stories of unimaginable hunger, thirst, and complete lack of shelter.

Event participants meet and talk with one another.

Event participants meet and talk with one another.

 So, as I try to wrap up things as the typhoon takes a back seat in peoples’ minds and in the media, I am left with the feeling that I didn’t really do enough to help our families and that I could have done more. Surely, me babbling on about what the Red Cross is doing to support the Philippine Red Cross cannot be comforting to people.  However, I can’t help but think that I at least showed that I cared and maybe that’s all that our local Filipino families needed.  When the Filipinos have huge smiles on their faces; when Filipino nuns grab and hold on to your hand; and when they ask to take a group photo with you and your volunteers, you start to think that you just might have provided a service.

Before Typhoon Haiyan, I had been in sort of a Red Cross slump, feeling that I was not accomplishing much. When will I be able to submit a Tracing Inquiry for a refugee? Was I making our region and my colleagues look good? You spend so much time with outreach and community partnership meetings, it’s easy to ask: “When am I actually going to help people?”  When you’re chipping away, little by little, at program development, it’s hard to feel that you’ve made a true difference.

Lisa Taylor offers coping strategies for stress.

Lisa Taylor offers coping strategies for stress.

But, after engaging colleagues, my supervisor, our CEO, and countless volunteers, I soon realized what it means to be a Red Crosser. Staff jumped through hoops to acquire resources and meeting space to host outreach events for local Filipino family members. Interns called over a hundred places of worship, colleges, and universities in an effort to find the Filipino population. Disaster Mental Health volunteers agreed, without hesitation, to provide psychological aid and comfort to Filipinos, with less than 24 hours notice. Colleagues shared their dwindling supply of Mickey Mouse Dolls, meant for Disaster clients, to give to Filipino children. Volunteers drove 2 hours to assist with Tracing Services. Supervisors said, “Yes, buy the families donuts and coffee.” To be a Red Crosser, you pull together what little resources you have to help clients. No matter how busy you are, you take the time out to help another person. You work a lot longer than usual in the office and miss your family.  You send email after email until your eyes hurt. You sacrifice. You say, “I don’t know the answer, but I will find out as soon as possible.”

The following quote by Anderson Cooper was read by a Filipino man at the close of one of our outreach support groups:  “When everything else is taken away, broken and battered, soaked raw, stripped bare, you see things. You see people as they really are. This week in Tacloban, Samar and Cebu, amidst the hunger and thirst, the chaos and confusion, we've seen the best in the Filipino people. Their strength, their courage, I can't get it out of my mind. Imagine the strength it takes for a mother to search alone for her missing kids, the strength to sleep on the street near the body of your child. We've seen people with every reason to despair, every right to be angry, instead find ways to laugh, and to love, to stand up, to move forward.  A storm breaks wood and bone, brings hurt and heartbreak.  In the end, the wind, the water, the horror it brings is not the end of the story.  With aid and assistance, compassion and care, this place, these people...they will make it through. They already survived the worst. They're bowed, perhaps tired and traumatized, but they are not broken.  Mabuhay [live] Philippines! Maraming salamat [thank you] for all you've shown us. Maraming salamat for showing us all how to live.”

Jen Pierce shows everyone the Red Cross Tracing Services program.

Jen Pierce shows everyone the Red Cross Tracing Services program.

Being a Red Crosser means crying with a family after this quote is read. Being a Red Crosser is thinking about your clients late at night and during your dinner, and well beyond the months following the disaster. Being a Red Crosser means to care. And if caring is all you can do, then you have served. You have helped.  And I am grateful for this opportunity to serve and am appreciate of my mentors in headquarters and colleagues I have met through the Restoring Family Links training for empowering me to provide these services. 

A special thanks goes to those volunteers and fellow staff that offered their full and timely support in these local outreach efforts:  Interns Melanie Hurter and Emily Bernstein; Disaster Mental Health volunteers Jenny Bergstresser, Debbie Guy, Sherrie Sneed, Lisa Taylor and John Weaver; International Services volunteers, Andrew Oppenheimer, PhD and Christine Carpino, PhD; Wyoming Valley Office Manager Susan Meyers; Lackawanna Office Manager Maureen Shea; Berks Office Manager Sherry Bingaman; Berks Chapter Executive Janet Curtis; Emergency Services Officer Adrian Grieve;  Disaster Program Specialist Nina Johnson; Communications Officer Jen Loconte; Communications Intern Andrew Borowiec; Chief Executive Officer Peter Brown; and all of the International Services staff in ARC National Headquarters.  Each played a vital role in this project.