Making an Impact on World Refugee Day

Story by Jack Wilson, North Texas Region, Assistant Director, Service to the Armed Forces and International Services

Armed conflicts have lasting impacts. This is an obvious statement. We know that the scars of war on a community’s infrastructure, on a nation’s institutions, and on the bodies and minds of those caught in crossfire last long after the final shot is fired. We know that that final shot far too often marks only a brief reprieve before conflict returns.

We know that war displaces people from their homes and separates them from their loved ones. We also know that the human spirit carries on, that the ties that bind families and entire communities together are stronger than war, fear, and distance.

Texas receives an average of 4500 refugees every year, and organizations across the state work together to provide these new arrivals with the assistance they need to adjust and thrive here in America. This number of arrivals, though, tells us nothing of the refugee experience.

What is the refugee experience? The simple and honest answer is that there is no the refugee experience. Every client we serve through the Restoring Family Links program, our primary service extended to members of this unimaginably diverse group referred to as “the refugee community,” is a unique person with a unique story and unique needs. There is no THE refugee community. There are thousands.

On April 20th, as we celebrate World Refugee Day, we will inevitably think about “outreach.” We will shake hands with our fellow humanitarians and discuss strategies that will allow us to work better together. We will present slide-shows about the way Restoring Family Links can reconnect families, helping our clients find what many of them may have thought was lost – the bonds of family that prior to the delivery of that first Red Cross Message were relegated only to memory. We will do all of these things that are vital to our outreach efforts, which are in turn vital to our ability to reach clients and provide the help we are all dedicated to providing.

There is another prong to outreach, though, that we must never forget. Communities develop organically for a number of reasons. In many ways, communities develop out of need. They emerge naturally as a way to provide those things that bolster both the body and that indomitable human spirit. They grow from personal relationships between individuals. We can reach out to these established communities, literally get in front of them and let them know we are here. We should do this at every opportunity, and we should be always searching for new opportunities to do so. We should also reach out to every client and forge new personal relationships with every person who comes to us to send or receive a Red Cross Message or inquire about a certificate of detention.

Delivering our services – demonstrating our compassion as well as our capabilities – is our primary means of outreach. Getting to know our clients as people inherently means getting to know the communities of which they are a part. Today, a volunteer caseworker here in Dallas, ten steps from my desk, sat with a client and simply chatted. Tanya Hernandez learned from this client more about the structure of Somali society than she expected to learn when she came in the office this morning to help a client fill in the remaining blanks on a tracing inquiry. She shared with Mohammed a little about what she had been working on, how hard we had tried to find another Somali client from a different clan.

“I know him! I’m going to see him this week! I’ll let him know you’re looking for him.” Over a month and a half of searching, of apartment visits, and pavement pounding and “reaching out” to organizations and “The community,” and strategizing had not led us to the client we sought. Reaching out to Mohammad when he came into the office got us to the other Mohammad with one simple, human conversation.

On this World Refugee Day, remember and celebrate the diversity of refugee communities. After World Refugee Day, remember that diversity when reaching out and building relationships with the local community.

Red Cross Reconnects Iraqi Refugees with Their Past

Story by Jack Wilson, North Texas Region, Metro Field Specialist - Service to the Armed Forces and International Services

Jack Wilson

Jack Wilson

Restoring Family Links (RFL) is about reconnecting people. Often this means reconnecting loved ones separated by borders, continents, and miles and miles of ocean due to ongoing armed conflict or sudden natural disasters. Through another part of the program, Certificates of Detention, RFL caseworkers help to reconnect clients with their own past – or more accurately with proof of their experiences fleeing violence.

In the past few months, the North Texas Region has seen a surge in requests for Certificates of Detention from clients who fled Iraq during the First Gulf War and were detained in refugee camps in Saudi Arabia, many for more than five years. This increase has not been limited to one chapter or region. This past month, I was able to see that first hand while interning with the RFL team at National Headquarters. All over the country, RFL caseworkers are listening to the stories of former refugees and helping them recall details of lives tens of thousands of miles away and two decades behind in order to possess proof of their time in places not their home.  

This process can take months. Sometimes it never ends. Until spending time with the RFL team, National Headquarters seemed to be this place far away where these requests – these stories of hardship and oftentimes of fear and occasionally of despair – disappeared and then (hopefully) magically appeared later in the form of Certificates of Detention.  The names of the caseworkers and interns and volunteers working tirelessly to help these clients without ever having the privilege to meet them were familiar, but only in the abstract – as an email signature or a voice on the phone. Working alongside them in DC, I could see the same level of dedication to serving clients as is exhibited by the caseworkers with whom I work each week locally. We truly are a national team bound together by dedication to our shared mission.

Keeping that mission in mind is as vital in Restoring Family Links as it is in any Red Cross line of service. It is easy to do when face to face with a client. It becomes impossible to not have the mission at the forefront of your mind when hearing about a client’s experience and how much he or she wants to hold a document that serves to validate those years spent without a place to call home. What impresses me most about the RFL caseworkers around the country is that the drive to do whatever it takes for the client does not wane after the client leaves the office, even when the months drag on or the documentation cannot be found. I thought my colleagues in North Texas were special in this regard (and they are!) but I see now that the unique combination of compassion for our clients, human curiosity to learn more about that which we can’t really comprehend, and a passion for seeing a service through to completion is evident in every part of the Red Cross network. My colleagues are very special. They are also part of a team of special people that is even larger and even more dedicated than I imagined.