From France to California: RFL Volunteer Shares Her Cross-Continental Journey

Claire used to work at French Red Cross HQ in Paris before relocating to the US.

Claire used to work at French Red Cross HQ in Paris before relocating to the US.

Story by Claire Tarbes, RFL Caseworker, San Francisco

“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” Alex Haley

I’m a French volunteer who’s been living in the San Francisco Bay area for a year and has started volunteering for the Restoring Family Links (RFL) Service of the American Red Cross in the Northern California Coastal Region in April, 2015. When I arrived in the US, I knew right from the beginning that I would contact the Red Cross, and RFL in particular, as I had already been involved in this unique and great mission during a previous work experience in France and had become quite passionate about it!

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to work for the French Red Cross RFL Service at the headquarters in Paris, as “New Inquiries Officer.” Being the entry point of the service, my role was to analyze, sort and prioritize all the incoming requests, mainly from inquirers in France but also from other RFL Services with-in the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

In this exciting and challenging position I had to determine whether or not the requests could be accepted and realized by our service as well as by our RFL partners abroad, then prepare the different cases (Red Cross Messages, tracing inquiries, official documentation requests, etc.) for the research phase, which was ultimately carried out by Tracing Officers. At the time there was only a small team of employees and a few volunteers working at the national level to handle all the requests made to the French Red Cross. During the last years, the service has deployed a volunteer network in several important cities throughout the French national territory, bringing RFL closer to people and needs, in a similar way to here in the United States.

Another important part of my work was to answer the national RFL hotline. I addressed questions and concerns from inquirers -and/or from their referring social workers- assisting them through procedures and documentation, making sure we had as much information as possible on their cases. I also did my best to manage inquirers expectations, clarifying our mission when cases could not be accepted and making referrals when possible. My work had a lot to do with listening to the inquirers, mostly migrants and refugees who had experienced tragic or traumatic life events, and assisting them in the long and often painful process of searching for their missing relatives, in a supportive and professional way.

During that year I learned a lot from our inquirers, about different countries and cultures but mostly from their difficult and sometimes beautiful stories which were humbling life lessons, whether the research outcomes were positive or not, well-received or not. As for most people involved in RFL, when we got to reconnect or reunite families or find out about a relative’s fate, people’s reactions and ranges of emotions were the greatest rewards and the best motivation to keep going.

I particularly recall the moving reunion of this couple from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each of them contacted our Service a few months apart. We were able to cross-check their requests in our database and reestablish contact. A successful and fast outcome such as this one doesn’t happen very often but it’s so great when it does! It highlights the importance of making our services known to people and organizations as well as always recording and checking every new inquiry in case the sought person is closer to his or her family that we might think.

French Restoring Family Links team with leader M. Ombaku, head of RFL in DRC (2012)

French Restoring Family Links team with leader M. Ombaku, head of RFL in DRC (2012)

Since I came to the US, I’ve been interested in learning more about the American Red Cross’ services and the way RFL works here, so I’m very happy to have joined the regional team! It’s really interesting to see that, although RFL teams are facing similar issues in the US and in France, based on the histories, geographical location, and general situation of the two countries, RFL inquiries are linked to different communities, countries and conflict or disaster areas.

Within the American Red Cross, l also discovered a large and long-existing network of dedicated volunteers, supported by a responsive team at national level, and a regional/local community based approach of RFL activities. As a new volunteer, I’ve already been involved in several trainings and have had the opportunity to contribute to actual cases, doing some home visits and receiving a client looking for a relative detained in Syria. I’m also helping my supervisor and colleagues where I can with organizational and outreach strategies.

To me, a key element about RFL is that it really is a collective and collaborative work - from inquirers and families to all the Red Cross Red Crescent members and partners involved in different countries - whose results can make a real difference in people’s lives. For most of us, it’s so important to communicate with loved ones who are abroad or to know their whereabouts to be able to get on with building our own lives, especially when starting a new life in another country. As a foreigner and migrant myself, I can definitely relate to that.

Claire with Naomi Pease & Charlotte Bernsohn at World Refugee Day in San Francisco

Claire with Naomi Pease & Charlotte Bernsohn at World Refugee Day in San Francisco

So whether in the US, in France or somewhere else, I hope to keep contributing and learning about RFL by being involved with other people in this demanding but always moving and inspiring mission.