Holocaust Remembrance Day: How a Volunteer Finds Inspiration in her Jewish Heritage

Story by Cassie Schoon, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Communications Volunteer

American Red Cross International Services volunteer Robbe Sokolove believes in “Tikkun Olam,” a Hebrew phrase meaning, “To repair the world.” It’s an expression that holds special significance for Sokolove, who has worked on Restoring Family Links (RFL) cases that tell individual stories of global conflict, from families separated by the Holocaust to messages intended for recipients in Iraq and Afghanistan. In observance of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), we asked Sokolove to share her experience with RFL, her own face-to-face confrontation with anti-Semitism, and how her heritage influences her volunteer work with the Red Cross.

In the past year, Sokolove helped to reconnect an elderly Jewish couple to an ancestor in Poland, with the help of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). The couple’s cousin was a young girl during the Holocaust and was taken into guardianship by her family’s servants. The cousin was found by the Red Cross after WWII, who located her parents in the US and successfully reunited her with her family. The couple Sokolove was working with hoped to learn more about where their cousin had lived during the Holocaust, as well as any other available details about her life in Poland. Through research and a lot of legwork, Sokolove and the ICRC were able to supply the couple with documents of their cousin’s transatlantic trip to the US, as well as an address for her home in Poland.

“It wasn’t a reunion at the airport, or anything like that,” Sokolove said. “But to this couple, it was extremely important to have this information about their history.”

Sokolove, whose own ancestors came to the US from Russia in 1899, is an active member in the Denver-area Jewish community. She experienced firsthand the lingering legacy of anti-Semitism in 2013, when the Morrison Synagogue where Sokolove was a member and community leader was vandalized with swastikas. Sokolove describes the event as a moment where her small synagogue, which had always felt safe and isolated from the greater world, felt vulnerable to hate. “It was the first time it really hit home for me personally,” she said. “I feel safe in my community, but we have to remember we are all vulnerable, whether we are big or little.”

For Sokolove, her work with International Humanitarian Law and Restoring Family Links programs is a way to help make the world a better place, despite genocides and conflicts that still divide families and create refugees. The Fourth Geneva Convention, the most recent Geneva Convention forming the foundations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), was a response to the horrors of the Holocaust, and Sokolove sees her ongoing work with IHL as having a connection with her own heritage. She calls her volunteerism her own “Tikkun Olam,” the way she herself can help repair the wrongs of the world.

“I see it as a mitzvah,” she said, “My history and my community make this work a perfect match for me.”

Internationally-Renowned War Surgeon Speaks at “Special Edition” Lunch & Learn Event

Story by Cassie Schoon, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Communications Volunteer

Surgery is a delicate, nerve-wracking practice in the best of circumstances. But for surgeons working in the midst of armed conflict, with improvised operating rooms and whatever tools may be at hand, surgery is an exercise in making do, doing without, and saving lives in situations where endless unknown challenges can arise. Working under these conditions became a lifelong vocation for Greek-Canadian surgeon Dr. Chris Giannou, guest speaker at a special installment of the International Services Brown Bag Lunch and Learn event at the Colorado and Wyoming Region headquarters in Denver, CO.

Dr. Giannou has operated in many high-profile conflict zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Chechnya, Lebanon, Somalia and Liberia. A former chief surgeon for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Giannou will discuss his experiences in providing medical treatment in areas affected by some of the most violent conflicts of our time.

Dr. Giannou observed working conditions for doctors in the difficult circumstances while teaching in Mali, where he himself became ill and was a patient of Malian doctors who had been trained in France. Seeing local doctors struggle to provide care in facilities so different from those in which they’d been trained inspired Dr. Giannou to devote his career to the practice and study of medicine in the developing world.

Dr. Giannou’s career as a war surgeon began in Palestine. While he was working as director of the Palestine Red Crescent Society at a Palestinian refugee camp, members of a Lebanese militia attacked. Dr. Giannou’s experiences working at the camp, and being taken prisoner by the Lebanese, are detailed in his book: Besieged: A Doctor’s Story of Life and Death in Beirut. Dr. Giannou’s life work has also been featured in “On the Border of the Abyss,” a documentary film. He has been appointed to the Order of Canada, which is Canada’s second-highest national honor for merit, and received the Star of Palestine, Palestine’s highest award, for his work to provide care to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Dr. Giannou still works closely with the ICRC, authoring publications and working as a surgical consultant for the Canadian Red Cross Rapid Deployment Field Hospital Emergency Response Unit.

"We're so proud to have Dr. Giannou speak at our event," said Tim Bothe, International Services manager for the Colorado and Wyoming chapter.

For more information on the Colorado and Wyoming Region of the American Red Cross, please click here.

Red Cross Workers Navigate Realm Between Humanitarian Rights, Legal Realities

RCM for blog.JPG

Story by Cassie Schoon, Colorado and Wyoming Region, Communications Volunteer

A core service of the American Red Cross and its partner National Societies is reconnecting families separated by conflict, disasters, migration or other humanitarian crises through our Restoring Family Links (RFL) Program. Part of this program, Red Cross Messages (RCMs), are often relayed across barriers like damaged communication networks, vast oceans, or infrastructures devastated by natural disasters. But in a few cases, the political and legal gray areas associated with conflict provide an even greater challenge for RFL volunteers seeking to transmit messages between family members. In today’s world of varied scales of conflict, the Red Cross occupies a unique space due to its adherence to neutrality and dedication to supporting humanitarian rights.

Local RFL workers Jaici Murcia and James Griffith have direct experience with this interesting role. Together, they have had to carefully navigate prison rules and post-9/11 regulations on inmates at the Federal Administrative Maximum Facility (ADMAX) prison in Florence, Colo, while working to deliver RCMs.

“One of the longstanding guidelines of International Humanitarian Law is that war prisoners have a right to receive communication from their families, and the Red Cross has historically fulfilled the role of the neutral party that delivers messages between POWs and their families,” explained Jaici Murcia, a former Pikes Peak volunteer and current regional disaster officer for the Red Cross of Colorado. “Today, in a world with an ongoing war on terror and stateless combatants, we face a less black-and-white definition of who prisoners of war are – and that can complicate our work.” Murcia ran into interesting challenges related to several RCMs intended for inmates at the maximum security prison south of Colorado Springs.

After speaking to one inmate’s lawyer, as well as with prison management and prison clergy, Murcia worked on a long-term solution in partnership with Mark Owens, the Africa and Middle East caseworker at National Headquarters. Owens presented prison management with documentation of an agreement between the Bureau of Prisons and the Red Cross, sanctioning RFL communication as a component of the Geneva Convention. “Every single time we deliver a message, we try to give the recipient an opportunity to reply,” Murcia said. “The goal is that we restore some sustainable form of communication for these individuals.”

Some cases take an extraordinary amount of diplomacy and may take years to resolve. James Griffith, an RFL worker and retired military chaplain, took up a case started during Jaici’s tenure at the Pikes Peak chapter. The message, which was sent to the Red Cross in July of 2011, was intended for a recipient who is under “Special Administrative Measures,” or SAMs, a status specific to inmates implicated in terrorism. Under SAMs, terror suspects awaiting trial - as well as convicted terrorists - are prohibited from communicating outside the prison, interacting with other inmates, or engaging in unmonitored communication with legal counsel. Due to these features of SAMs, such as extended periods of solitary confinement, the restrictions have faced opposition by organizations such as Amnesty International and the European Court of Human Rights. Eventually, the message Griffith and Jaici had worked so hard to deliver was relayed through the inmate’s legal counsel.

Prison administrators and national security agencies are focused on safety, and expressed concern that seemingly benign RCMs might actually be coded terrorism-related communications.

“Individuals transmitting [Red Cross Messages] have no expectation that their message is private – in fact, all messages are read, and International Humanitarian Law requires that these messages be purely family news in nature. We work with the prisons to deliver messages, and in some cases national security concerns may inhibit or slow down message delivery," Griffith said.

Griffith said he's succeeded in delivering about half of the RCMs he's relayed to ADMAX inmates, usually to those who are not under SAMs. The legal grey area surrounding SAMs is unique to today's modern era. "You really don't run into anything like this historically. Even during World War II, folks were able to receive Red Cross Messages when they were confined during the Nuremberg Trials," he said. "It's a pretty unusual set of circumstances."

To see more stories from the Red Cross Colorado and Wyoming Region, please visit their blog by clicking here.