Hidden Treasures at the National Archives: Uncovering Red Cross History

Story by Kathleen Salanik, National Headquarters, Director of Restoring Family Links

I have the privilege of working with an incredible team of staff and volunteers at American Red Cross national headquarters who every day in their work strive to find answers for separated families.

For a team outing, we went on a tour of the National Archives in Washington DC. It was a way for us all to take a break and do an activity in which we all had a common interest- seeking new information and learning from history.

We saw famous historical documents including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We also toured a special exhibit “Making Their Mark - Stories Through Signatures” which had various documents and memorabilia signed by notable individuals.  The most striking document we viewed, however, relates directly to the work done each day by the Red Cross.

It is a letter from the Secretary of War during WWII, Henry Stimson, to the then US Ambassador to Great Britain, John Winant. The letter, I am sure, brought both sorrow and relief to the Ambassador. Its contents read that the International Red Cross had provided confirmation that the Ambassador’s son was captured by the German Army and was being held in a prison camp. I can only imagine that it was sorrowful for the Ambassador to know his son had been captured, but to know that he was no longer missing, that he was alive and that the Red Cross has visited him, must have at least provided some reassurance, and most importantly, hope.

To see the work done by the Red Cross in conflict zones, the work that registers prisoners, relays news of their detention to family members and facilitates family communication, displayed in a special exhibit of the National Archives was profoundly rewarding to me and to my colleagues. Information accompanying the letter in the National Archives indicated that the Ambassador’s son was eventually released and returned home.  A joyful ending to a nerve-wrecking situation for the family.

While not all stories of family separation end so well, the work that I do with the Red Cross on behalf of families who are in such desperate situations is fulfilling. Even when the Red Cross isn’t able to find answers and even when the answers that are found are heartbreaking, the families we support are thankful. They are grateful that a Red Cross worker listened to their story and took action to try to help.

It is these families, like the Ambassador’s, that Red Cross caseworkers serve every day. It is tremendously rewarding work and, for me, to see it on display at the National Archives was amazing. While the program has changed over time and continues to grow, the mission of bringing peace of mind by reconnecting families remains engrained in everything we do.

Child Migration: Family Separation and Other Humanitarian Consequences

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Story by Kathleen Salanik, National Headquarters, Director of Restoring Family Links

Each year thousands of unaccompanied minors cross the southern US border. They leave their homes and families behind embarking on a long, dangerous trek. International migration fueled by political and economic complexities separates many families.  At the American Red Cross, the Restoring Family Links program aims to lessen the burden of family separation by putting migrants, refugees and other displaced persons in touch with their loved ones. Recently a Red Cross caseworker in Chicago assisted a boy who was smuggled to the US and had lost his backpack containing contact information for his family members both in the US and back home in Honduras. We worked with our Red Cross colleagues at the Honduran Red Cross and after rigorous searching they located the boy’s mother. His mother was then able to put him in touch with relatives in the US who could act as his sponsor so that he could be released from the detention center.  This is just one example of the plight of children traveling alone to the US.

Earlier this year, I attended a briefing by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on an assessment trip they took to Central America and Mexico to learn about root causes of child migration. The findings are, unfortunately, not surprising. Violence, gangs, economic insecurity and instability leave families with few options. Although choosing to migrate has many known risks, these perils are often more acceptable than the alternatives.

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One story that was told at the briefing was from their visit to a return center in El Salvador where families wait to receive their relatives who have been apprehended by immigration authorities and are being deported back home. The team from USCCB met with mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who were waiting for kids being returned from Mexico. A psychologist was there to mentally prepare the women for the possible stories they may hear from their children by describing the dangers of migration including muggings, rape, extortion, and train accidents. When the briefing was over, the USCCB representatives spoke with the women and learned that they were not surprised at all by the psychologist’s report. The dangers of migration are well known. Girls are put on birth control before they leave because rape is almost expected. When the women were asked why they allow the kids to migrate knowing the risks, the reply was simple and straightforward – “we know the dangers but are left with no choice. We can’t protect them here so we hope that they can make it to the US to find a better life.”

As the extent of this humanitarian tragedy continues to unravel, tens of thousands of minors continue to embark on a treacherous journey seeking a better, more secure environment. This year it is estimated that 60,000 of these kids who reach the United States will end up in the custody of the US Government who, in turn, will seek to place many of them in foster care with family or friends.  While the long-term effects of their difficult migratory journey are unknown, it is my hope that the Red Cross can make a small impact by helping to connect them with family back home. In some cases, the Red Cross may be able to provide that vital phone call where a parent’s fear is relieved when they hear their child say “I am safe.”