Story by Carmela Burke, Volunteer, Los Angeles, CA
In an emergency—natural or man-made—one agency alone cannot meet all the needs of individuals and families displaced by that crisis. Those forced to abandon their homes and communities search for safe haven which could be a temporary shelter, home of a family member or friend, or another country.
Separation from family members is inevitable during calamities, conflict and other emergency humanitarian situations. Several nonprofit and government agencies have longstanding practices of connecting family members of vulnerable people who include evacuees, migrants and refugees.
In the American Red Cross, founder Clara Barton helped soldiers in the Civil War send letters home to their families. She also collected lists of the missing and deceased to help inform families about their loved ones. This work continues today. The International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has a role in providing protection and assistance to those in need regardless of their legal status.
Families displaced and separated by disasters, conflict, international migration and other circumstances receive assistance from the vast Red Cross network to locate and reestablish communication with loved ones. Efforts to facilitate communications and contact among family members are achieved through these Red Cross programs: Restoring Family Links (RFL) and Safe-and-Well.
Each year in June, the world observes Refugee Awareness Month to bring to the forefront situations and hardships faced by vulnerable populations. On June 25, 2015 the Los Angeles Refugee Forum hosted a citywide World Refugee Day. This year’s event recognized the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria and unaccompanied minors here in the US, the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and commemorated the struggles and resiliency of refugees. The day was filled with entertainment, activities for children, sharing information and resources, as well as forging new partnerships.
The Los Angeles Refugee Forum is a collaborative group of at least 18 community organizations and government agencies that work together to address clients’ needs. Member agencies include American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service (IRIS), Jewish Family Service, Legal Aid Foundation, Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, and PARS Equality Center. Agency goals range from providing social and legal services (PARS), tools and connections to help new arrivals gain self-sufficiency (IRIS), rebuilding lives (IRC) and alleviating the suffering of family members separated by armed conflict or disasters worldwide (Red Cross).
“Reconnecting families is important to communities because family can mean the difference between a person who is resilient and one who may struggle,” said Kerry Khan, World Refugee Day Planning Committee Member representing the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region. “Family is one of the biggest support systems there is and can help a person get back on their feet after a disaster or experiencing conflict. …This is why it is such an important program. When individuals in a community are resilient they help build a stronger community.”
More than 60% of Restoring Family Links cases start in other countries, and the American Red Cross initiates more than 2,000 cases to help reconnect family members with their loved ones. Yet tens of thousands of refugees arrive in the United States every year from countries affected by conflict, and they agonize about not knowing the fate of their loved ones.
From her experience in teaming up with the Los Angeles Refugee Forum, Khan sees the need to continue community outreach and keep reminding agencies about the Red Cross' free reconnecting families services. “It may take several times before an organization or someone at an organization, can quickly remember that this service exists and provide the information to a client in need of it. Secondly, it is vital for our local Red Cross to know about other services so that we can refer clients to our partners if we are not able to provide the needed service.”
For more information on the Red Cross Restoring Family Links Program, visit www.redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies and in Los Angeles, please call (626) 407-4536 or email IntlTracing.LosAngeles.CA@redcross.org.