American Red Cross Celebrates World Refugee Day

Story by Jon Dillon, National Headquarters, Casework and Outreach Associate
Photos by Lisa Nations and Katie Wallace, National Headquarters, Interns

One family torn apart by war is too many. These words, the UNHCR's theme for this year's World Refugee Day, serve as a reminder of an all too common consequence of conflict - separation from a loved one. This separation often adds mental and emotional strain to already difficult situations. In the midst of these crises, the American Red Cross, along with its partner Red Cross Red Crescent societies and the International Committee for the Red Cross, can help restore the broken bonds of communication through its Restoring Family Links (RFL) program.

An important piece of this program is the outreach work done by Red Cross chapters across the country to support refugee communities and ensure their access to the RFL program as well as other services provided by the American Red Cross. Throughout the year, staff and volunteers engage with other refugee service provider organizations to strengthen the resiliency of refugee communities. For many chapters, World Refugee Day, a day established by the United Nations to honor the courage and determination of those forced to flee their homes because of persecution or violence, is the centerpiece of these outreach efforts.

This year, the American Red Cross Restoring Family Links team at National Headquarters joined chapters and other organizations across the nation in recognizing World Refugee Day by hosting a World Fair and several other events. The fair brought in vendors and entertainment, representing the diverse cultures in our community, from across the DC, Virginia, and Maryland area to celebrate the resiliency of refugee communities and call attention to the ongoing plight of the over 50 million people who were forced to flee their homes in 2013 due to conflict. The following photo essay are from our World Fair celebration, just one of many events hosted to draw attention to refugee communities around the world.

Dancers from the Natyabhoomi School of Dance perform in Mysore Style of Bharatanatyam, the South Indian classical dance form.

Sarah Moore, from Amani Africa joined our World Refugee Day celebration as a vendor! Amani Africa is a fair trade organization that provides vocational training to marginalized women across sub-Saharan Africa.

Dancers from the Natyabhoomi School of Dance strike a pose as an end to a fantastic performance for the American Red Cross' World Refugee Day celebration.

The Northern Virginia Rondalla brought to life classic Filipino folk songs for the World Fair audience.

Restoring Family Links intern, Lisa Nations, greets our special guest, Mr. Silvester Gboya, a former refugee and RFL client who was reunited with his family after being resettled in the United States.

The House of Angklung joins the World Refugee Day celebration by teaching Red Cross staff and volunteers how to play the angklung, a traditional instrument from Indonesia made of bamboo.

It took some patience on their part and some time practicing on ours, but we were eventually successful in making some beautiful music.

Joe Gibson, Program Associate with the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) team, basks in the glow of the American Red Cross Headquarters Atrium while promoting the IHL program during our World Refugee Day World Fair.

Thank you to all the volunteers, performers, and vendors who made the World Refugee Day World Fair a success! It is our hope that through this and other Red Cross events across the country helped raise awareness about refugee issues while also promoting the services of the Red Cross to reconnect separated families.

Celebrating World Red Cross Red Crescent Day

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Story by Jon Dillon, National Headquarters, Casework and Outreach Associate

Yesterday, the American Red Cross, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and our partner National Societies around the globe, celebrated World Red Cross Red Crescent Day. Established on the birthday of Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross Movement, this day celebrates the fundamental principles of the Movement and its humanitarian impact around the globe. Here at the American Red Cross, this included a celebration with food, dance, and story sharing.

Taylor Elementary International Folk Dance Team joins the American Red Cross in celebration of World Red Cross Red Crescent Day.

Taylor Elementary International Folk Dance Team joins the American Red Cross in celebration of World Red Cross Red Crescent Day.

Domestically, the American Red Cross provides lifesaving programs that include disaster preparedness and response, and blood services. The tireless work of volunteers and staff ensure that when disaster strikes or when there is an emergency taking place for a military family, the Red Cross is there to help.

Internationally, the American Red Cross works in coordination with the ICRC, the IFCR, and its partner National Societies to provide relief. Matthew Anderson, Roster Officer with the International Response Operations Center, shared the impact of the Red Cross for those affected by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Deploying 46 disaster specialists and committing over $56 million, the American Red Cross provided support ranging from sheltering activities and recovery planning to technical expertise through mapping and telecommunications technology. Together with the global Red Cross network, we helped provide cash assistance for more than 59,000 families to empower them to make their own decisions for how to rebuild their lives after the typhoon.

Matthew Anderson discusses the disaster response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Matthew Anderson discusses the disaster response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Matthew ended by underscoring that “whether you are making maps…distributing items…[or] directing traffic, it is volunteers that are truly the heart and soul of disaster response operations.”

The evening concluded with a speech by Anna Nelson, spokesperson for the ICRC. She highlighted some of the stories published on the IFRC’s tumblr which recount the impact the Red Cross has made on individuals ranging from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to a third generation Red Crosser in Kentucky. She stated that on World Red Cross Red Crescent Day “we are connected geographically, but also through time. We are connected by this day to millions of people across the globe who are also celebrating Henri Dunant’s birthday. We are connected to generations of individuals who believed in the same fundamental principles…who believed in the power of humanity.”

While World Red Cross Red Crescent Day is a special occasion to recognize the important work of this movement, it is also a call to daily support and promote the fundamental principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality. As a member of the Restoring Family Links team at National Headquarters, I feel honored to be surrounded by passionate and dedicated humanitarians on a daily basis who do just that. From reconnecting refugee family members separated because of conflict to providing migrants the opportunity to call their loved ones to let them know that they are okay, the RFL program brings peace of mind to thousands around the globe. Together with its other lines of service, the American Red Cross and its global partners continuously strive to uphold the mission of Henry Dunant and embody the spirit of World Red Cross Red Crescent Day.

Social Justice for Gender and Sexual Minorities and Restoring Family Links

LGBT advocates at Uganda's first Pride Celebration.

LGBT advocates at Uganda's first Pride Celebration.

Story by Jon Dillon, National Headquarters, Casework and Outreach Associate

When I, and I would assume most people, think about social justice issues, reconnecting families separated by conflict, disaster, migration, and other humanitarian emergencies is often far from the first topic that comes to mind. We live in a world where identity, poverty, and politics, among other causes and combinations of these factors, create injustices that capture the spotlight whether it be in media, politics, or conversations around the dinner table. Before working with the Restoring Family Links program, I must admit that this was the case for me as I whole heartedly pursued my own social justice issue – gender and sexual minority rights. Yet, as with most social justice issues, the linkages between gender and sexual minority rights and reconnecting families are not hard to find.

A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to intern with several organizations advocating for gender and sexual minorities in Uganda. While there, I witnessed the struggles and hardships of this community, but also their resilience and dedication to supporting one another in what often seemed (and continues to seem) like an up-hill battle. I also heard heart-wrenching stories of family disavowals – families being torn apart, not by factors of war or disaster, but by the fear and disdain of a form of identity solely based around an individual’s perception of self and love. Often the story ended there: separation with no hope of resolution or reconnection. However, there were always the few stories of a father, mother, aunt, uncle, or sibling reaching out to their loved one to restore that broken bond and heal the emotional wounds and worries caused by family separation.

While these separations often take place domestically, it is becoming more common for those persecuted because of their gender and/or sexual identity to seek refuge in nations with more friendly attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities. It is within this intersection that I find myself pondering the place of the Restoring Family Links program. While hundreds of advocates fight for this community to have the right to be who they are (or simply the right to live), is there a place for the Red Cross to reconnect those who have fled with those who, in some cases, they fled from? This is obviously largely dependent on the ability of rights advocates and individuals to change the hearts and minds of the general public and governing bodies that dictate and support the discrimination of gender and sexual minorities. However, since family is defined by context, the American Red Cross understands that there is a place for reconnection between sexual and gender minority refugees and their family back home. Simply put, the humanitarian need for families to reconnect after a separation is understood to be a paramount need for the emotional and psychological vitality of the world’s newest set of refugees and asylum seekers regardless of the source of that separation, but perhaps more importantly because of that abrupt separation and the context.

This is just one of the many intersections between the Restoring Family Links program and social justice issues. From exploring the root causes of migration to the drivers of conflict, global injustices continue to pull people apart. However, this also pushes people together. It is my hope that through these new interactions, those who have suffered at the hand of injustice can find new opportunities to right wrongs and rebuild broken bonds.

Burundi Families Reconnecting after Years of Separation

Video by the International Committee of the Red Cross
Story by Jon Dillon, National Headquarters, Outreach and Casework Associate

 In the above video, a volunteer with the Burundi Red Cross delivers Red Cross Messages by bicycle to those who have been separated from their family by conflict.  Since its independence from Belgium in 1962, the nation of Burundi has witnessed many years of violence, including two genocides, according to the International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi.  The most recent genocide in 1993 resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilians seeking refuge in neighboring countries, mostly Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Since the end of the civil war in 2005, the nation has seen a gradual return to peace and has encouraged its refugees to return home and commence a national reconciliation process where those affected by the conflict can air grievances and fears in an attempt to ease communal tensions.  In 2012, despite fear of returning home because of political beliefs differing from those of the ruling party, the government of Tanzania closed the Mtabila refugee camp which housed thousands of Burundi refugees. While many of the refugees repatriated, others have sought refugee elsewhere including Kenya, Uganda, and other third countries of resettlement via the UNHCR. Throughout the instances of fleeing violence, seeking refuge, and being repatriated, the chance of separation is high, leaving many Burundi family connections splintered.

The confusion of conflict and the often poor communications infrastructure of refugee camps can separate families and leave them without a way to reconnect for months, years, possibly even decades. With the help of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies along with the International Committee of the Red Cross, family members can reconnect to one another through their Tracing and Red Cross Message services. Staff and volunteers, like the one seen in the video, work to locate family members in order to re-establish communication and restore the peace of mind that comes with knowing the whereabouts and state-of-being of loved ones. It is the hope of the organization that through this work, all families links severed by the destruction and chaos of conflict, disaster, and migration will be restored.

For more information on Burundi and its refugees, please visit:

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees Burundi Profile

Pambazuka News on Burundi Refugees

AllAfrica News on Burundi Refugees

Challenges for Truth and Reconciliation in Burundi

Reflections on the International Day of the Disappeared

Story by Jon Dillon, National Headquarters, Outreach and Casework Associate

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Even before working with the Restoring Family Links team at the American Red Cross, I was passionate about refugee and migrant issues. Yet while I spent a significant amount of hours studying these topics and advocating for laws to end abuses such as human trafficking, I was largely unaware of the movement and international obligation to reconnect families separated by conflict, disaster, international migration, and other humanitarian crises. This has changed over the course of the summer as I have had the opportunity to become passionate about and support American Red Cross chapters in their efforts to restore family links. As this week commemorates the International Day of the Disappeared, it creates time for reflection on the important work done globally to locate the lost and reunite families.

The International Day of the Disappeared was originally established to draw attention to those whose detention or execution went undocumented, leaving family members and legal representatives unaware of their loved one’s location. As the realities of conflict and migration (forced or voluntary) often lead to similar instances of family separation whereby the location of one or more family members is unknown, the day has come to commemorate all of those suffering from the emotional and psychological pain of separation. Restoring Family Links is a division of the Red Cross Red Crescent established to aid in finding disappeared persons and reconnect them with family.

Over the past few months, I have heard the despair of people separated from their loved ones and the joy that comes with their reunion. Even when a physical reunion is not yet possible, just receiving a written message or a phone call can bring back the peace of knowing a loved one’s location and state of being. These are the stories that underscore the importance of observing the International Day of the Disappeared and supporting the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Cross National Societies to find missing persons and reconnect them with their family.

Today, please show your support by making the empty frame used on this blog your profile picture on Facebook and elsewhere as a reminder to the public of the International Day of the Disappeared. To learn more about the Day and the great work of organizations to reconnect separated families, please visit the following websites and read reconnection stories located in this blog:

International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances

United Nations International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances

International Committee of the Red Cross Missing Persons

Amnesty International International Day of the Disappeared

Videos from the ICRC and other National Societies of the International Day of the Disappeared

Stories for International Day of the Disappeared from the British Red Cross