"Waking up the Dead" by Restoring Family Links

Story by Mohamed Gassama, Western New York Region, International Services Volunteer

One of the perhaps lesser-known services of the American Red Cross is reconnecting families who have been separated internationally. Like most of our services, this is done largely through the efforts of our incredible volunteers such as Mohamed Gassama. Prior to arriving in the United States nearly a year ago, Mohamed worked for the Red Cross Society in his native Sierra Leone. Now an International Services volunteer living in Rochester, Mohamed shared this uniquely personal account of helping a teen now living in Liberia reconnect with his native village:

There is hardly anything more painful than finding oneself in the midst of unfamiliar faces after having been separated from loved ones as a result a nerve-breaking circumstance. Some people could go on an empty stomach for hours or even days because of the grinding pain caused by having no immediate relatives, and in the worst cases no familiar face to turn to. This pain was a common experience Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and displaced persons went through during and after years of internal armed conflict.

Warranted by this situation, the International Red Cross Movement stepped up to its international responsibility by facilitating restoration of family links (RFL) between separated families.

As an RFL caseworker, I completed my notes and proposed actions on each case planned for the following week on a Thursday afternoon and set off for Katanga village to deliver Red Cross Messages (RCMs). A five-year-old boy (now 17) left behind by his parents during a brutal invasion could remember his father’s nick-name and his birth village. The Red Cross registered and kept track of his movement for six months until he could finally put together the pieces of a heart-trembling experience 12 years ago.

His father was killed during one of the attacks on the village. During this attack his elder brother and sister, ages 10 and 12 at that time, were conscripted by one of the fighting forces. They were later reported dead. The only surviving member of the family was the mother. She lived in a state of despondency in a one-bedroom mud hut on the outskirts of the village since she got back from hiding.

Like most villages in that region, it was the tradition of Katanga to perform sacrifice for the ‘departed’. In observance of this tradition, the community decided to perform a ceremony for her family on a Friday.

I got to this village the same day. On arrival, I went to the chief to observe the usual courtesies. He halted me a few minutes into the briefing. ‘Stop! Stop!’ he said. ‘This is meant for the ears of the entire village’, he jumped out of his seat.

This got me nervous and uneasy! It sent shock waves down my spine. The chief and his men marshaled me to a large gathering a few yards from his house, where the ceremony was taking place. In a split second we were surrounded by almost the entire village.

In a few more seconds a woman in her early fifties emerged from the middle of the crowd. In no time she became the center of attention. It became obvious at that point she was the reason for my visit. It was apparent from the tears raining down her cheek that she already knew about the boy's message.

The chief requested I deliver the message to the woman publicly, against the normal practice. Everyone present burst into tears. Tears of joy, I believe.

A few yards away from where I stood, I overheard an old man say, ‘Red Cross de gi life to die man’ meaning, ‘the Red Cross raises the dead’. No one imagined this could have happened because everyone believed the boy was dead. Receiving a message from him was like waking the dead from the grave.

Food was served and prayers offered for the late father, brother and sister. I collected the reply and took some pictures to deliver to the boy in a refugee camp in Liberia.

Through the work of Restoring Family Links volunteers, like Mohamed, families separated by conflict, disaster, migration, or other humanitarian emergencies can be reconnected. To find out more about the Restoring Family Links program in your area, please contact your local Red Cross chapter or visit www.redcross.org/familylinks.