L.A. Red Crosser Helping Canadians after Massive Wildfires

L.A. Red Crosser Helping Canadians after Massive Wildfires

"It is touching and rewarding to have the opportunity to help..."

The American Red Cross has sent more than 50 disaster workers to help support the Canadian Red Cross after devastating wildfires forced the evacuation of more than 88,000 residents in Fort McMurray, Canada in early May. One of these Americans is Los Angeles Region Red Cross staff member Alex Rose, who is supervising a Canadian Red Cross client service center based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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Reconnecting History with the Present: A Day in the Life of a Restoring Family Links Caseworker

Red Cross caseworkers prepare to deliver information to elderly Russian woman looking for her family.

Red Cross caseworkers prepare to deliver information to elderly Russian woman looking for her family.

Story by Jessica Murison, American Red Cross Volunteer, Denver, Colorado

While families around the world are able to communicate with each other on a daily basis if they like, the American Red Cross is busy at work reconnecting families separated by conflict, disaster, migration, and other humanitarian emergencies. Although each case is unique – there is no such thing as a “typical” case – we wanted to share this story as an illustration of how the Red Cross works to reconnect loved ones scattered around the globe.

The Restoring Family Links program is extensive, and it is a complex process to obtain the right combination of information needed to reconnect families who have often been separated across years and thousands of miles. In this particular case, an elderly Russian woman hand-wrote a letter to the Red Cross Mile High Chapter, inquiring about her brother who went missing during World War II. Robbe Sokolove, a Red Cross Restoring Family Links volunteer caseworker, got the letter translated from Russian to English and then met with the woman to collect additional information that would be helpful for the Red Cross to start searching for the long-lost relatives.

During this interview, Robbe found that the woman’s brother was married and had a child.  So, she opened three cases: one for the woman’s brother, another for his wife, and the last for his child. The inquirer explained that her brother was a shoe salesman, and left for work one day and was never seen again. Robbe asked her to point on a map where she thinks he may have gone missing, as she vaguely remembered his driving route. Her brother was Jewish, so she believes that he may have been taken or perhaps perished in a bombing raid that occurred around that time. 

Robbe submitted an official family tracing case through the American Red Cross. Once a tracing case is initiated, the inquiry is forwarded to national Red Cross societies in the countries where the missing person was last seen and/or where he or she may have relocated. This case was also forwarded to the International Tracing Services, an international tracing office that specializes in cases that have a tie to the Holocaust.

In January, the American Red Cross received information from the Russian Red Cross regarding the Russian woman’s sister-in-law and niece. It was only one small, initial clue towards the broader puzzle: a record that the sister-in-law had been evacuated during WWII. Members of the Restoring Family Links team then set out to deliver the message by hand to the woman.

Tim and Robbe of the Restoring Family Links Team go over the case prior to delivering the message.

Tim and Robbe of the Restoring Family Links Team go over the case prior to delivering the message.

The message was written in Russian, therefore the team knew a general idea of what the form contained but was not privy to the full content. “With WWII cases, we deliver each individual piece of information as it comes along, because many of the inquirers are elderly and it can be a lengthy investigative process to track down the whereabouts of someone who disappeared so long ago,” explained Tim Bothe, who oversees the Restoring Family Links program in Colorado.

When the Restoring Family Links team arrived at the adult day care center in Denver where the Russian woman spends many of her days, the woman seemed anxious and excited, and reached out to read the international tracing message immediately, trying to make sense of the information. Jon Dillon, Caseworker and Outreach Associate for Restoring Family Links at American Red Cross National Headquarters, patiently explained in English that it was only preliminary information, and that as the Red Cross continued to find clues to the mystery of her brother and his family, they would continue to deliver each article of news, piece by piece.

There are several obstacles that can occur within a case. First, language is often an issue. Many people seeking to reconnect with their families abroad are refugees learning English as a second language. This barrier is always a consideration for Restoring Family Links staff, and they utilize all the tools available to them to be able to communicate effectively with our clients. In this case, Jon communicated with the woman through the assistance of Russian-speaking staff at the day care center.

Managing expectations can also be an issue, as locating missing family members can be a long process. Months can pass as Red Cross workers in far distant countries and here in the US exhaust all possible measures to find information on the whereabouts of missing family. Tim Bothe explained that Red Cross caseworkers seek to update clients on a regular basis after the case is initiated, even if no new information has been found, to reassure the client that the case is still open.

When information is found, caseworkers usually deliver the updates in person. Sometimes, unfortunately, there just isn't enough information or the trail has gone cold, and a case hits a dead end. But in many cases, Restoring Family Links efforts result in reconnecting long-lost family members – or, at the very least, uncovering new information that helps the seeking family member gain peace of mind about where their loved one went after the separation.

After Jon was finished speaking with the Russian woman, she seemed grateful and thanked him for delivering the news to her. The case is not solved yet, but the information given to her provides comfort that the Red Cross is moving forward, making progress and will continue to trace family links until all measures have been exhausted.  

Welcome Katie Gray!

Please join me in welcoming our new Restoring Family Links (RFL) Training Coordinator, Katie Gray in her new role on the RFL headquarters team, she will oversee development of training tools for the chapter network, manage the RFL Instructor Roster and coordinate national training events.

Katie comes to us with over five years of experience in the refugee, migration and humanitarian services field. She has worked with refugee and immigrant populations, coordinating and developing cross-cultural education and skill building programing, for the International Institute of St. Louis, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC). 

She first learned about the Restoring Family Links program when members of the outreach team at National Headquarters came to present about the program at the IRC office in Silver Spring, Maryland.  While serving as a refugee caseworker and program coordinator, Katie encountered many clients who were devastated due to the lack of contact or lost connection with their loved ones.  Immediately she became interested in how refugee and migrant serving organizations could partner more with RFL services to assist in the reunification of families.  Therefore, when the opening with the RFL Program at the American Red Cross National Headquarters became available, she embraced the opportunity to make a broader impact in the migration and humanitarian service field. 

In addition to her professional experience, she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of San Francisco, California and a Global Master of Arts degree in International Relations from Webster University. Katie is very excited to join the RFL team services and looking forward to the opportunity to working with all of the RFL volunteers, mentors and staff across the chapter networks! 

Welcome, Katie! The whole RFL team at National Headquarters is excited to have you join us! 

The New Year's Resolution of a Restoring Family Links Caseworker

Story by Jon Dillon, Casework and Outreach Association, Washington, DC

The beginning of each year is often set aside as a time of reflection and planning for the future. The holiday feasts and festivities are recalled with joy while, simultaneously, assessments are made on waistlines and habits that should be changed in the coming year. And so resolutions are made, some in earnest and some not so much, to make the future better, physically, mentally, spiritually, and otherwise.

So, I too, set about making my resolutions. Cook more, eat out less. Actually use the gym that is literally one floor below my apartment. Read more, play less video games. And while these may be standard, run-of-the-mill resolutions, I’m also resolving to do something inspired by what I do for work – to talk to my family more often.

Every day of the week, I have the pleasure and opportunity to reconnect loved ones separated by conflict, disaster, migration, and other humanitarian emergencies. Family connection is vital to a person’s well-being. I have a co-worker who frequently says that in times of crisis, a person needs five things: food, water, shelter, access to medical services, and family; and having the last piece of the puzzle often helps secure the first four.

While I have never experienced (and hope to continue the trend of not experiencing) a crisis that severs my ability to communicate with my family, I can imagine the pain and suffering that this separation causes. I am extremely fortunate to have the means and ability to talk daily with my family whether by email, text, or phone. Yet despite my frequent interaction with those who do not know the whereabouts or well-being of their loved ones and the hyper-connectivity available to me in US, I must admit that my record of staying in touch with my own family is abysmal.

So this is my “number one” resolution: to talk with the members of my family on a weekly basis (this may still seem infrequent to some people, but like I said, the current rate is abysmal). I shouldn't rely on holidays, family celebrations, and the thankfully few and far-between life crises to be the catalyst for when I talk to my parents and sisters. Rather I’m dedicating myself to taking advantage of the opportunity that I have to stay in-touch with my loved ones and support my own well-being by knowing theirs.

I feel incredibly fortunate to do work that inspires a New Year’s resolution. As I work at maintaining communication with my own family in the coming year, I look forward to all the family reconnections the Red Cross will make possible and sharing these stories with all of you.

A New Year: Reflections from 2014 and Aspirations for the Year Ahead

Story by Kathleen Salanik, Restoring Family Links Director, Washington, DC

New Year is a time when many of us are looking forward, inspirationally, making resolutions and identifying ways we can make the most of the year ahead of us. I like this tradition and annually, I set goals for myself for the coming year. I also like to take time to reflect on the year that has passed and be thankful for the blessings that were bestowed.

As the director of the Restoring Family Links program at the American Red Cross, I have a lot to be thankful for from 2014. It was a banner year in many ways as far as achieving programmatic impact and forming and renewing lasting relationships. I’m amazingly fortunate to have a job that brings me to work every day to help reconnect individuals and families separated from loved ones. In 2014 there were some very powerful family connections that Red Cross volunteers in the US and across the globe helped to make happen. 

Some of the more memorable connections include Red Cross workers in Connecticut who reconnected a family separated by conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Migrants, fleeing instability and violence, made hundreds of Red Cross phone calls home through a valuable partnership with the aid organization, No Mas Muertes. A Burmese family, separated since 1989, was reconnected by volunteers in Syracuse, NY. A man who fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 was reconnected with his niece with the help of Red Cross volunteers in Colorado. And, Red Cross volunteers throughout the country have continued to provide support and documentation to Iraqi refugees who fled in the 1990s.These are just a sample of the over 1,000 families reconnected by the American Red Cross in 2014.

Red Crossers’ Voluntary Service allows these wonderful stories to unfold. With an unprecedented influx of unaccompanied children arriving on our southern border in late spring and early summer, the American Red Cross was called on to help the kids reconnect with their families. I had the pleasure of meeting with a couple of groups of volunteers in Arizona to thank them for the ground-breaking service they provided to help unaccompanied migrant kids make phone calls home. In total, these volunteers helped facilitate over 14,000 safe-and-well phone calls for the separated children. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to do this work.

The people I work with make these efforts all the more enjoyable. My home base is Washington DC, but I get the pleasure of working with staff and volunteers all over the country. The Restoring Family Links Mentors are the star Red Cross caseworkers who lead volunteer teams to implement local programming. At the DC office our fantastic summer interns put together a fun “thank you” video to the RFL Mentors for their great work. I also work with a dynamite team of leadership volunteers who are on the Restoring Family Links Advocate Committee, a Board that provides leadership support to the program and helps form local and national partnerships.

So, as you can see, 2014 was a remarkable year. Looking ahead to 2015 the challenges and difficult situations that separate families continue. War, political unrest, violence, instability, disaster – these hardships displace people and separate loved ones. As I mentioned at the beginning, I like to set goals for the year to acknowledge the challenges ahead and provide motivation to have a big impact. For 2015, I have a couple of goals for American Red Cross Restoring Family Links.

There are many families that may be separated and in need of Red Cross services but might not know what kind of services are available or may have trouble accessing them. I want the American Red Cross and Reconnecting Families to be synonymous. I want everyone to know that when families are separated internationally by crisis, they can turn to the Red Cross; and I want this to be easy. We recently launched an online platform to make obtaining our services easier. We’ll continue to work to raise awareness and make it as easy as possible to connect with Red Cross services. 

Partnerships with government, community organizations, media outlets and other non-profits are also key to achieving greater visibility and greater impact. In 2015 the American Red Cross will continue to play our role as convener – to bring people together to discuss issues and challenges and work towards collaborative solutions.

2014 was a tremendous year and I have a feeling 2015 will be too!