Makiwa and Motema's Story

RFL Caseworker, Daniel Kim, with his client, Makiwa Rashidi

RFL Caseworker, Daniel Kim, with his client, Makiwa Rashidi

By Daniel Kim & Alexys Lemans, Grand Rapids, Michigan

International disasters, migration, war, and conflict leave millions of people all over the world in need of assistance each year. As a worldwide system, International Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers are able to help families everywhere bridge the gap caused by these issues.

Makiwa Rashidi fled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2002 due to the armed conflict around her. Fleeing can be a complicated matter and she was separated from her family—across countries and oceans; from DRC to South Africa to Grand Rapids, Michigan—until the Red Cross helped reunite Makiwa with her loved one, Motema Dedieu.

Motema Dedieu had plans to follow Makiwa to South Africa but he never showed up. He wasn't able to leave Uvira, the city where they lived together in DRC. For a short period of time, Makiwa and Motema were able to connect through telephone. They spoke daily to ensure one another’s safety until one day, Motema stopped answering. A group was sent to find Motema in Uvira but there was no trace of him or his family.

In 2012, Makiwa was relocated to the United States. She contacted the American Red Cross of West Michigan to start a case in October 2014—she wanted to find Motema and reunite with him.

Restoring Family Links (RFL) offers hope to families that are victims of conflict and separation. When separation happens, the Red Cross is there to help, whether it is to deliver a message to a loved one overseas, to locate missing family members, or even to reconnect Holocaust survivors to long-lost relatives. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies all around the world, Red Cross case workers help connect thousands of loved ones each year. This includes searching for family members, restoring contact, facilitating reunions, and working to determine the fate of loved ones who remain missing.

Restoring Family Links is a remarkable program,” said Daniel Kim, the International Services associate and the RFL caseworker at the American Red Cross of West Michigan. “It truly demonstrates the extent to which the Red Cross spans. It really is worldwide and it allows us to reach families who need help everywhere.”

Thanks to the Restoring Family Links program and the help of hard working Red Crossers, Makiwa reconnected with Motema early in March 2015. After he was separated from Makiwa, he fled to Uganda and is currently a refugee there. The Red Cross is working with Makiwa to take the next steps in uniting the two loved ones.

 

To learn more about the reconnection process, please visit here. To get more information about Red Cross programs in the West Michigan chapter, click here.

Restoring Family Links: Reaching Across Continents and Conflict

John Kwigwasa holds picture of his sister sent to him along with a Red Cross Message.

John Kwigwasa holds picture of his sister sent to him along with a Red Cross Message.

Story by American Red Cross Connecticut Chapter

John Kwigwasa braved incredible hardship after being displaced from his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to civil war and then as a refugee living in South Africa during the violent xenophobic attacks of 2008. Since John and his immediate family have relocated to the US, John has been working with the American Red Cross to trace his relatives in other parts of the world. He vividly remembers the day in 2001 when he last saw his village in DRC and his six siblings.

“We had seen it brewing, but we still had hope. After all, this was our country. I was born in Congo and it was all I knew; besides, I was just recently married and my wife was three months pregnant with our first son. Word had reached me at work not to return home, Kivu had fallen under attack from gunmen.”

That morning in 2001, John saw the last of his six siblings before he set out to work in a distant village. “I’d always wanted to become a mechanic. I’m really good with cars. I actually was working on a diploma to qualify for a professional certification.”

Throughout his village rumors had begun to spread about a potential violent retaliation following the assassination of President Laurent Kabila. “We knew Kabila had received help from Rwanda and Uganda,” John recalls, “but nobody thought much about what Kabila had promised those governments.”

The conflict that erupted in 2001 was targeted and vengeful. Among government forces, it was widely believed that the Ugandan and Rwandan governments had a hand in the president’s assassination.

“Soon enough, the was word that all refugees in the country, particularly Rwandans had to be hunted down, returned—or worse, if you were a woman, raped before being killed.”

John’s father, a local fisherman who had regularly canoed Lake Tanganyika, as far as Zambia, soon found his house surrounded by gunmen.

“My mother was Tutsi, from Rwanda. They weren’t just hunting down foreigners, but everybody suspected of harboring them as well. Worse, a slight deviation from an arbitrary look, a Congolese look, marked you as a target for the brewing attacks.”

Anticipating the coming danger, the family managed to smuggle their mother out of the country the night before gunmen surrounded the house. However, John wouldn’t find out about her fate until later when, as a stateless person in Zambia, the tragic news would reach him.

“We got her onto a boat to cross Lake Tanganyika to Burundi, but the Navy patrolling the border had been given orders not to let anyone to enter. We suspect their boat was defiant, for everybody on the boat was killed, shot by the Navy.”

When John escaped DRC to Zambia, he had left his pregnant wife behind. The gunmen that had attacked his father’s home killed his father and two other siblings. It would take years until he was reunited with his wife and two-year-old son in a refugee camp in South Africa.

For several years, John enjoyed some stability in South Africa. He held two jobs. “I was a mechanic by day; at night I worked as a security guard. But South Africa was bad, eh!” John remembers the violent xenophobic attacks of 2008 on migrant workers in the country. 

“One day, a friend came to pick me up at work. On our way home, we met a group of young Xhosa men who were very hostile. Their leader asked us why we were taking their jobs and stealing their women. When we told them that we both had been married before coming to South Africa, and that we got the jobs nobody wanted in the country, the group leader felt annoyed. He looked down on us and said he was going to kill us. I thought it was a joke. Within seconds, he pulled out a pistol and shot me. The bullet went through my left thigh and out.”

Even though John survived that incident, he spent two months convalescing at a local hospital. Upon being discharged he asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative at his refugee camp to see about being repatriated back to DRC.

“I wasn’t thinking straight, I was traumatized. I couldn’t look my wife in the eye. To add to my experiences, I just couldn’t live with the feelings I had buried inside. I was so traumatized I wanted to kill myself, to end it all,” John said, recalling the stress of his attack and of learning about his wife’s treatment at the hands of attackers in DRC.

While in South Africa, John says, his wife finally told him how she managed to escape. “She said, after I left her family took her in. However, their village was attacked too. She and other young women were taken away by the gunmen as sex slaves.”

With 2010 fast approaching and South African officials getting serious about hosting the FIFA World Cup Soccer Championship, John’s camp in Cape Town was shut down.

“They told us that they couldn’t have refugee shacks within eyesight of tourists. Thus between 2008 through 2011, we lived in fear again. To integrate us back into the community, they assigned us homes where we lived with until our papers were processed and were assigned to a third country, the United States of America.”

The American Red Cross provides Restoring Family Links services to families that have been separated by natural disaster, conflicts and other tragic events. Caseworkers at local chapters around the country help families locate missing relatives by working with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in nations around the world.

Once a family member is found, the Red Cross helps them reconnect through short messages. This year the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region has helped restore family links between repatriated Congolese refugees and their families in New Haven and Bridgeport. John Kwigwasa’s family is one of them. 

“In the beginning, life here in America was tough,” John said. “We went five months without jobs. We asked for jobs but they told us that we needed to settle down first. Later, I got a manufacturing job. I now work for a small company that specializes in winter gardening.”

John met Jan Radke, Senior Director of International and Military Services with the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region. It was through her that he discovered he could trace the whereabouts of his siblings. 

“I was excited, but also had to be realistic.”

After some months, a Red Cross affiliate in Zimbabwe was able to locate John’s sister at the Tongogara refugee camp.

“I thought I was alone. I felt happy knowing my sister was alive.”

The reunited siblings have continued to exchange messages through the Red Cross. John is hoping to help his sister to resettle in a safe place, as he was able to do.

“My sister wrote to me saying once she received a two-weeks ration of food supplies and was told to hold onto them for two months. Can you imagine that? With two kids, huh?”

Despite his concerns, John remains hopeful; an outlook that he attributes to the favorable chances his sister has over being sent here to America because he now has an established permanent resident status.

“Now, I’m really happy and want to help my sister find a third country. It’s not easy living in a refugee camp. I lived in one. In the camp, the processes can be long and if you don’t know anybody to help you, it can almost be impossible to get a third country.”

The process is ongoing, but there is hope that one day the two siblings will be reunited and his sister will know the security John, his wife and children now have.

“We have sleep now. We go home and nobody comes to attack us. I feel safe. Safety is really important to me.”

For more information on the American Red Cross Connecticut Chapter, please click here.

Two Siblings Reconnect after 20 years of Separation

Story by Tebogo Ramutloa, ICRC Pretoria

Sharing of a Red Cross Message takes place in the ICRC delegation. ICRC or National Society staff/volunteers collect and personally deliver the messages, which must contain only family or private news.

Sharing of a Red Cross Message takes place in the ICRC delegation. ICRC or National Society staff/volunteers collect and personally deliver the messages, which must contain only family or private news.

When Cecile’s* father died, she was only nine years old. Cecile could not understand why it was then that her aunt separated her from her immediate family, which the father had taken good care of. "It was his wish for all of us to be educated," she recalls. She remembers how her father, while on his hospital bed, instructed her elder brother to finish his studies in Belgium and then to return home to look after his siblings.

In 2009, Cecile fled to South Africa to escape the marriage that had been arranged for her by her aunt. Still in South Africa, she is now 30 years old, and for the first time in 20 years, she has had contact with her elder brother, who is based in the US.

While growing up in her aunt's house, Cecile was prohibited from socializing with her peers. As a result, she never had friends and was shy and introverted.

When Cecile was 15, her aunt ordered her to be a second wife to a stranger who would take care of her. Feeling helpless, she obliged. "He is the one who took my virginity. Even though he treated me kindly, it felt like he was raping me because I did not want him. He was old enough to be my father," Cecile mumbles in a soft, sad voice.

Later on, she was forced to leave school and work in one of her aunt's clothing stores in the city. Her responsibility was to keep the shopkeepers from stealing money. It was at that time that she decided to steal from her aunt's handbag in order to board a flight to South Africa. "I regret stealing her money. I am not a thief. But I had no choice, I had to run away," Cecile tearfully declares.

Life for Cecile became even harder in a foreign country. She spoke French, not English. The money that remained after she had had to pay corrupt individuals in DRC for travelling documents was dwindling. The people she was staying with urged her to take up prostitution. She constantly worried that her aunt would come to South Africa to look for her. Fortunately, her faith in God and her sheer will to survive kept her going.

Cecile did not anticipate the day that she received a call from the ICRC Pretoria delegation asking her whether she knew someone named Baurion. "I had not seen nor spoken to my brother Baurion for 20 years, now someone was asking me over the phone if I knew him. I just froze," explains Cecile.

While Cecile had been enduring hardship in South Africa, her elder brother Baurion in the US had been on a mission to find her. He had told his friends how he was longing to find his sister to fulfil his father's wish to enrol her in school.

He had taken a friend's advice to send a tracing request to the American Red Cross. Upon receiving the tracing request from the American Red Cross, the Restoring Family Links team at the ICRC Pretoria delegation began to search for Cecile, contacting the Congolese community in South Africa.

"The mere mention of my brother's name, and the fear that it could be my aunt tracing me, left me with mixed emotions," admits Cecile. To ascertain if it was indeed her brother who was tracing her, she, too, wrote a Red Cross message, in which she requested proof of identity from Baurion.

"When I saw his picture my heart was filled with sadness. I was sad that I had gone through a lot of hardship while my brother was living a good life. For a moment I blamed him for what I had gone through. I thought, if he had been there he would have protected me," reasons Cecile.

But now she says her life has completely changed for the better since the ICRC and the American Red Cross connected her with her brother, who supports her financially. "He calls me every day and asks me silly questions like do I have a boyfriend," she states, bursting with laughter. She says he tells her every day that he is going to put her through school, as he did with her other two siblings.

Cecile is happy that even though her brother is miles away from her, she feels a sense of belonging, and that helps her deal with the hardships she has experienced.

*Fictitious name used to protect privacy

For more on the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross' Pretoria delegation, please click here.