Reconnecting and Respecting Red Cross Clients

Story by Susie Mazaheri and Karen Kinzig, Restoring Family Links Caseworkers, Chicago, IL

Susie Mazaheri and Karen Kinzig are RFL Caseworkers; Susie is a clinical social worker, a veteran Disaster Mental Health, International Services volunteer and National Restoring Family Links (RFL) Advocate Board Member. Karen is a veteran educator and new Red Cross volunteer/RFL caseworker.

Susie’s Red Cross experiences started at a call center in the Chicago, Illinois office. She was called down to assist as Disaster Mental Health (DMH) with clients from Hurricane Katrina who were starting to trickle in, clearly traumatized and in tremendous anguish. Their stories were heartbreaking, horrific, shocking, all at once.  This led to some of the most rewarding experiences ever – working with teams of volunteers on national disaster sites and listening with sensitivity and care to the emotional pain of clients who have just lost everything, yet are courageous and resilient survivors. Supporting the volunteers as they dealt with their own sometimes complex feelings and emotions is also a critical component of the DMH role. Everyone has a personal story and unique response to share which deserves to be honored and validated.

So, what does this have to do with RFL? If one thing is universal in the human condition, it is that we all are linked by feelings and emotions in the face of crisis and loss. And while many of our clients will express their pain through the interview process, some clients-- for a variety of reasons-- will not be able to verbally articulate what has happened to them.

A gentleman walked into a local Red Cross suburban office this spring. In very few words, he asked if they could help him locate his family. We were excited to have our first solo case, having been mentored by Christa Kuntzelman, our talented RFL Lead. Over the months, we had observed her deftly and gently gathering necessary information during client interviews while weaving in and out of their need to share their stories. 

Setting up the initial client intake in this new case was challenging, as initial phone calls elicited no response. Finally, we received a hesitant call back from our client who said he would meet us at the Red Cross office to talk more. A few details were shared – a decade of no contact, the large city where his family might still be located, little more. We hoped more details would be forthcoming.

Our winsome, tall, elegant client slipped in quietly through the front door. We were eager to promote an atmosphere of comfort and trust and were more than ready to listen.  We had set aside several hours for this process, and the sheets of rain outside put us all in no hurry to depart. We tried to engage initially in small talk to break the ice and help him feel comfortable to talk and share. But as we slowly moved through some initial interview questions, heavy silence became the most frequent response. This continued and continued with an occasional yes or no after long waits and pauses.

Karen was not particularly alarmed by the client’s solemn demeanor. She attributed it to cultural mores, shyness and respect. Since this was her first experience with a client she had no idea of what was “usual” in an intake meeting.  But any assumptions she could have made had no resemblance to this initial encounter. As Karen later aptly remarked: “It is difficult to describe his affect and his effect on the interviewers.  His reticence and presentation were truly rather stunning.”

We tentatively tried to work directly using the form, and our client shared in writing the name of the city and family members.  Eventually, a local church. Attempts to use a map we had brought along were graciously declined.   We tried some other tactics, but ultimately it was abundantly clear no additional information beyond the barest of facts was going to be shared that day. Our collective casework hearts sunk as we limped to a close, and our client slipped back out the door into the pouring rain. 

In reviewing our case, we agreed we knew really nothing it seemed that could help flesh out the case – not why he had left his home country, or how he last spoke with his family, or why he was seeking to reconnect. All we knew was that he was separated from family and – propelled by emotions and experiences he could or would not share – was asking for our help to find them. 

This mystery, like all things in life that are so unpredictable, has a very happy ending! Despite the minimal information available, the case moved forward with lightning speed. We received an email only a few months later that his family had been located, and had sent a message and along with beautiful photos of the family in native dress. It was really incredible!

We left a message for our client, and hoped against hope that he would return the call. Had he changed his mind and slipped back into his own mysterious world? Amazingly, within a day, his hushed voice heard my excited words spill out over the phone “We found them! We found your family! They sent us a message and a beautiful picture!” Silence.  And then with a burst of emotion clearly reflecting his amazement and joy: “Really?!” “Yes, Really! Can you meet us back at the Red Cross office soon?” Silence. And then one word reflecting a heart beating with absolute and pure happiness. Yes.

It was moving to see our client arrive in colorful, celebratory embroidered garb to mark the joy of being finally connected with family. When he was given the Red Cross Message sent to him by his family he simply sat quietly reading the letter with a faint smile; it seemed that he did not want to take his eyes off it.   When he opened the picture of his two sisters which Karen had enlarged and framed, he was transfixed, soaking in their presence. We all felt we had shared in a very moving event.

We've had some time to reflect and ponder this case. The only contact from our client since was a short response to later email inquiries: one sentence saying he did successfully contact his family by phone. With that comes the profound but simple realization that ultimately, the personal story, while often compelling, mesmerizing, inspiring, and valiant, is universally the client’s to share or not, as they are the ones who own it and feel its power. As Judith Wright, Australian poet said so well “Feelings or emotions are the universal language and are to be honored. They are the authentic expression of who you are at your deepest place.”

In all our work, it is increasingly clear that these feelings and emotions engender behaviors that may in truth serve to protect our clients, and help them to live many years throughout their lives with the challenge of their personal narratives. Our mission in reconnecting families at its purest form is just to guarantee and respect our clients’ feelings and emotions that is to say “who they are at their deepest place.” And then help them reconnect with their family. No more no less.  And that is exactly what we did.