Red Cross Reconnects Congolese Family after 14 Years Apart

Yowali Kitungano connects with her sister through a letter after 14 years of separation.

Yowali Kitungano connects with her sister through a letter after 14 years of separation.

Story by Patricia Billinger, Communications Director, Denver, CO

One year ago, Yowali Kitungano had no idea of the fate of her father, brothers, sisters and nephew – where they were, whether they were alive, or how they were doing if they were alive.

She hadn’t seen or heard from any of them since at least 1997. During a pair of civil wars that wracked the Democratic Republic of Congo, she and other family members fled from their home town of Uvira.

Yowali's family when she was a child.

Yowali's family when she was a child.

“There were a lot of guns and bombs and people went in different ways. Some crossed the lake to Tanzania, some goes to Burundi and it was like that, never found each other again,” Yowali recalled. She eked out an existence first at one refugee camp and then another, struggling just to survive.

"There was no communication [with family], nothing, just very hard,” Yowali said. “You tried to adjust yourself to see how you can survive. They give you a tent. It was so hard. In the beginning I have no time to think about the family. You just try to make yourself together and start over your life.”

Eventually, Yowali applied for and received refugee status to resettle in the United States. Along with her husband and two daughters, she made her way to Denver where, finally, her life became stable and safe enough for her to focus on rebuilding – and on reconnecting.

So, one year ago, Yowali came to the Red Cross. She initiated an inquiry through the Restoring Family Links program to seek out the whereabouts and try to re-establish contact with her father, four brothers, two sisters and nephew. She knew it could be difficult to find them, and that it might take time – about 14 years had passed since she last had contact, and the DR Congo had thousands of refugees due to its civil conflicts.

In July 2015, Yowali made contact with the last two of her eight missing family members. It had taken a year, but her case was fully resolved.

Red Cross caseworker, Robbe Sokolove, delivers a message to Yowali from her sister.

Red Cross caseworker, Robbe Sokolove, delivers a message to Yowali from her sister.

The key to success came about six months after her case was initiated. The Red Cross in the DR Congo had been able to find one of her sisters, who submitted an official Red Cross Message. A Colorado-based Restoring Family Links caseworker hand-delivered that letter, written in the women’s native tongue, to Yowali at her home in Aurora in December 2014.

“I was so happy. Tears were in my eyes. I was so happy to know they were alive.  I was so happy to see the letter and know how they were doing,” Yowali recalled with a giant smile. Her sister knew the whereabouts and latest information on a number of the family members, and very quickly Yowali was able to reconnect via letter and phone with her loved ones. The chain of reconnection had been started, and in July 2015 Yowali’s family in Africa were able to ascertain the whereabouts of the final two family members.

“I called to the Red Cross to thank them because this was not easy, it was hard work, but they did it. They make it,” Yowali said. “I am so grateful to Red Cross.  I am so happy.  Thank you so much.”

Find out more about reconnecting families work of the Red Cross, please visit redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.

For more stories from the American Red Cross in Colorado, please click here