Red Cross Partners with PinnacleHealth to Reconnect Family Torn Apart by West African Violence

Victoria, Liberian Refugee living in Harrisburg. Photo Credit: American Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Region.

Victoria, Liberian Refugee living in Harrisburg. Photo Credit: American Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Region.

Story by Dan Tobin, Director of Marketing & Communications, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Imagine being separated from your children due to war and not knowing how to contact them. Years go by and you wonder whether or not they are still alive. Had they managed to escape the violence? You have little information about their whereabouts and don’t know where to turn. You, yourself, are alone in a different country and speak little of the native language. Where do you go for help?

This was the situation facing Victoria, a refugee from Liberia now living in the United States.

Liberia, a country in West Africa, ended the last century rocked by two civil wars that left the nation deeply divided. Ethnic conflict and the resulting land disputes caused thousands of refugees, some of whom resettled in the United States.

Victoria had lived in the village of Pleebo with her three children, two sisters, and two brothers. Her husband was deceased and she was in a relationship with another man. This was near the end of the country’s second civil war, which ended in 2003.

“There were rebels fighting in my little city of Pleebo,” commented Victoria. “We became refugees as a result of the violence.”

Victoria’s boyfriend told her that the United States was accepting refugees and that they should go and start a new life there. Although hesitant to leave her children, she followed him to America, settling in Harrisburg in 2004.

“My boyfriend used to help me contact my family when we first arrived since I did not know how to contact them on my own,” she stated. “When he left me, I could no longer contact them.”

Victoria, who speaks little and can write no English, relied on her boyfriend of seventeen years for everything. Although their relationship was rough, he made it possible for her to survive in this country and provided her with the means to stay in contact with her family back in Liberia. When he walked out on her three years ago, she found herself all alone. She had no friends and no local support mechanism. She had nowhere to turn and no one to help.

Mike Dolatoski, PinnacleHealth Case Manager. Photo Credit: American Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Region. 

Mike Dolatoski, PinnacleHealth Case Manager. Photo Credit: American Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Region. 

In Steps PinnacleHealth

It was during this time that she began working with Cori Drenning, a Licensed Social Worker at PinnacleHealth, an outpatient health clinic located in her neighborhood. In addition to providing healthcare, PinnacleHealth offers support services to assist individuals with their non-health-related needs. Three years ago, Mike Dolatoski, a PinnacleHealth Case Manager, joined the team and started working directly with Victoria on a regular basis.

“My role as a case manager is very similar to social work,” noted Dolatoski. “After completing an initial assessment and getting to know someone, we work together to set personal goals. Those related to basic needs are focused upon first. We then look at additional goals and figure out how best to attain them.”

One of Victoria’s long-term goals was to once again make contact with her children, brothers, and sisters. She had no idea where they might be and Dolatoski had no idea where to start. He approached a colleague for advice, and she directed him to the local chapter of the American Red Cross.

Red Cross Restoring Family Links

“My supervisor mentioned the Restoring Family Links Program and was able to connect me with the right person,” he added.

The American Red Cross Restoring Family Links Program is a joint effort of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement that reunites people who have become separated due to armed conflict or other situations of violence, natural or man-made disasters, or migration. In 2015, Restoring Family Links was able to distribute over 100,000 messages and facilitate close to 500,000 phone calls between relatives in countries throughout the world. Close to 1,000 children were reunited with their families through the program.

Dolatoski noted, “I reached out to the Red Cross in December 2014. My Red Cross contact at the time met with Victoria and me to gather all of the available information. He was very upfront that the process could take a long time and that there was no guarantee of success.”  

Following the meeting, the Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Region based in Harrisburg initiated a Restoring Family Links case with the greater Red Cross Network. At this point, the local Red Cross, working in conjunction with the American Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., reached out to the Red Cross in Liberia with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross. For the next several months, representatives from the Red Cross in both countries worked collaboratively to exchange information needed to locate Victoria’s family.

Hope Roaten, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager. Photo Credit: American Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Region. 

Hope Roaten, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager. Photo Credit: American Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Region. 

A Message from Home

In May 2016 word came through the Red Cross network that contact had been made. The family was located in a very remote area of the country, which was a 90-minute drive followed by a 60-minute walk to the nearest communication center. No cell service was available, so all communication would be done via handwritten messages.

“I immediately contacted Mike and told him I had news to share with him and Victoria,” commented Hope Roaten, American Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Disaster Program Manager. “We setup a meeting for the three of us at PinnacleHealth.”

Roaten had received messages and photos from Victoria’s family. She decided she wouldn’t tell Dolatoski or Victoria until she could do it in person.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Roaten stated. “The look of relief, satisfaction, and gratitude on Victoria’s face was wonderful to see. It was as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her.”

Victoria added, “I saw the pictures and letters and was very happy. It had been three years since I spoke to my children and 12 years since I’d seen them. I was so happy.”

Dolatoski commented, “We were both not expecting this to happen. It was such an exciting day. For Victoria, the moment was so profound.”

Despite all that she has been through, Victoria has an infectious glow about her. Her smile and laugh brighten the room. Her gratitude to those who help her clearly shines through.

She is now torn between two lives – the one she left behind so many years ago in Liberia, and the one she has started here in Harrisburg. One moment she wants to travel home to be with her family, the next she talks about finding a way to bring her now grown children here.

“I sent them a letter,” she said. “I want to see them. I miss them so much.”

A Perfect Partnership

Using the American Red Cross global network, Victoria was once again able to connect with her family. Since the initial connection was made, Victoria has now been able to send messages through the Red Cross network back to Liberia. In addition, the Red Cross has been able to provide PinnacleHealth with referrals to resources that might enable Victoria to meet some more of her long-term goals.

“It’s wonderful to see the impact our partnership with PinnacleHealth has had on Victoria. Being able to reconnect her with her family shows how multiple organizations working together can enact positive change in our communities,” noted Jeri Sims, Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Regional CEO. “PinnacleHealth has been a strong partner with the Red Cross, providing financial support for our Home Fire Preparedness Campaign and supplying volunteers for our home fire install events. Victoria’s story highlights a new chapter of collaboration between our organizations. Working together, there’s no end to what we can accomplish.”

For more stories from the Central Pennsylvania Region of the American Red Cross, please click here.