Hope After 20 years of Separation

By The American Red Cross


It had been 20 years since Fidele* last spoke to his father. He lost contact with him as a teenager after he fled war in his home country of Burundi. Unsure of his father’s fate in the war, Fidele reached out to the Red Cross chapter in southern Arizona in hopes that someone could help him find his father. Using the information provided by Fidele, Elissa Maish, a dedicated Red Crosser, worked diligently with the RFL team and global Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to help find his father. 

“Having listened to all the wars he had been through, I held out little hope that we would actually be able to find his father,” Maish remembered. “Amazingly, six months later, I received a phone call and I heard a gentleman on the other end of the line saying, 'Fidele, my son, my son!'" 

Eight years has passed since Fidele was able to hear his father’s voice for the first time. For Fidele, being able to call and speak to his father brought happiness and gave him the closure he desperately needed.

Since 2010, Maish and Fidele have teamed together to achieve the Red Cross’s Restoring Family Links (RFL) mission: helping families trace and reconnect with loved ones separated by international conflict, disaster or migration. 


*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Growing the Restoring Family Links Program in Arizona

Story by Vicente Baamonde and Elissa Maish, International Service Program Managers for Phoenix and Tucson

The American Red Cross is more widely known for its drives with blood banks, first aid and CPR classes, and for supporting families in local, national, and international disasters. One service, however, that is making its mark in Arizona lately is Restoring Family Links.

Facilitating the Restoring Family Links course at the Third Annual Grand Canyon Chapter Disaster Symposium

Facilitating the Restoring Family Links course at the Third Annual Grand Canyon Chapter Disaster Symposium

During the first weekend of September, the Restoring Family Links (RFL) course was offered within the Third Annual Grand Canyon Chapter Disaster Symposium.   The goal of the Symposium was to improve the ability to deliver services through all phases of the disaster cycle. During the course of three days, the symposium brought specialized and less commonly offered trainings, as well as the traditional disaster classes offered by the Red Cross.  RFL was part of the effort to bring specialized training this year.  Volunteers and partners from many cities throughout the State attended the training symposium.

Elissa Maish and Vicente Baamonde, International Services Program Managers for Tucson and Phoenix areas, respectively, worked together to prepare the course. This was the second occasion that they collaborated together to offer the training in Arizona.  The RFL course, taught by both Vicente and Elissa, attracted 15 participants, with the audience primarily consisting of disaster responders.  They assured an interesting and active class where the exercises kept the audience engaged. Attendees really imagined themselves in the shoes of a RFL caseworker, playing the roles with great passion. They particularly enjoyed the role plays acted out by the instructors involving RFL caseworker interviews with a refugee client.  Elissa and Vicente illustrated the course with numerous cases that both Chapters had previously or are presently managing, raising the interest in the subject and creating numerous questions from the participants.

At least two of the participants will join the RFL team in Phoenix and at least one will join the Tucson Chapter. Elissa and Vicente are quite sure that the rest of the participants will help to spread the RFL message around the state and, if the opportunity presents itself, help the main offices to support cases in remote areas. The variety of ages and different backgrounds within a group of people helps ensure that they will be excellent voices for the program within their families friends community, especially when they all highly enjoyed the variety of topics on Restoring Family Links within the training. It is an excellent form of outreach, deeper that the regular RFL presentation or PowerPoint. 

Vicente Baamonde, International Service Program Manager for the Grand Canyon Chapter

Vicente Baamonde, International Service Program Manager for the Grand Canyon Chapter

Vicente and Elissa constantly exchange ideas, experiences and contacts. Both Regions promote RFL to the migrant population in different ways and each method complements the other.  Vicente has been successful making inroads with Central American organizations and consular officials and Elissa has developed excellent relationships with humanitarian organizations.  

The refugee resettlement program in Arizona falls under the purview of the Department of Economic Security.  Refugee-related initiatives, activities and conferences overlap or alternate between the two Regions so service needs to be consistent and seamless for refugees and organizations that serve them.  The collaborative model in Arizona has proven very successful.

Red Cross Collaboration: Restoring Family Links across North America

 Story by Elissa Maish, Southern Arizona Region, International Services


Globally, people are fleeing their homelands in record numbers as a result of armed conflict, socio-economic conditions, disaster, persecution or other humanitarian crises.  A major consequence of these tragedies is that people go missing and families endure prolonged suffering due to the uncertainty of the well-being of their loved ones.

Since the 1800s, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has offered a key global service, Restoring Family Links, that assists in locating missing family members across international borders.  Unique challenges present themselves, however, when searching for individuals on the move.  Sometimes, it is difficult to determine the route taken by migrants on their journey, where they shelter or the last location before going missing.  Other times, a missing person may indeed be located, but access to them can be difficult or dangerous. 


Because Red Cross Societies in the United States, Mexico and Canada and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provide humanitarian services to similar migrant populations, it is important that challenges and best practices are shared on a continual basis.  In June 2013, representatives from these four entities met in Washington D.C. to actively discuss capabilities and practices, with specific emphasis on how best to assist in locating the missing.

The representatives from Cruz Roja Mexicana reminded the attendees that they share three international borders:  Guatemala and Belize to the south and the United States to the north.  At all borders, Mexico experiences build-up of migrant populations in cities that are unable to provide much needed basic services.   The Cruz Roja Mexicana has increased its capacity to handle cases of missing people and implemented major initiatives to support many needs including the provision of free phone service for migrants to make telephone calls to their loved ones back home, medical and psycho-social support to those in transit, and training to migrants to deter them from making the journey. Another tragic and unexpected consequence of migration is injury, including severed limbs, incurred by migrants who jump trains.  Both the ICRC and Cruz Roja Mexicana, in collaboration with local humanitarian and faith-based organizations, are working toward providing emergency transportation, surgery, prosthetics and therapy.


Members of the Canadian Red Cross who attended the meeting advised that their migrant population travels through the United States as well as other points of entry.  Their Restoring Family Links program is robust and includes visiting migrants in government detention centers, holding dialogues with the Canadian Government on humane treatment, investigating alternatives to detention, and participating on a task force addressing the humanitarian issues around the forced return of migrants to their country of origin. They also offer migration support through programs such as “SmartStart” which teaches basic life skills to newly arrived migrants.

Advertisement for free international calls provided by the American Red Cross

Advertisement for free international calls provided by the American Red Cross

Similarly, the American Red Cross has a long and successful history of providing tracing services to those who have lost contact with their family members overseas due to humanitarian crises. As part of international tracing, the Red Cross also offers Red Cross Messaging service, whereby families can exchange written messages until a permanent communication method is in place.  An extension to Red Cross Messaging involves a small grant-funded pilot project available in two border communities that will allow migrants to place free limited “safe arrival” telephone calls to their loved ones.  Additionally, the grant contains provisions to provide safety, health and sanitation items, such as soap and water-purification tablets.

The June meeting was indeed successful as it provided a road map of current endeavors and opportunities.  The American Red Cross, Canadian Red Cross, Cruz Roja Mexicana and the ICRC continue to address migrant humanitarian needs within our scope. All activities align with the mission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to save lives and alleviate suffering, and remain consistent with the basic principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.