International Humanitarian Law and the Syrian Civil War

Story by Cody Austin, Western Washington Region, International Services Coordinator

The man above, obviously hurt, is not crying for himself. He is crying for his injured son and his dead 8 year-old daughter. She was killed during one of the Syrian military’s many bombings of Aleppo.  

March 15th, 2014 marked the third anniversary of the Syrian revolution. The revolution in Syria began when security forces arrested and tortured teenage boys for spraying anti-Assad graffiti on government buildings.  Peaceful protests for their release were met with gunfire from the Syrian government. A cycle of protests and violent repression continued to escalate and now, three years later, violence has forced more than 2.4 million Syrians to flee the country and internally displaced over 6.5 million people.  Well over 140,000 people have been killed, and over 70,000 of the dead are children.  Countless others face continued violence, torture, disease, and outright starvation as the conflict grinds on with little hope for a quick resolution. 

It is desperately obvious that the people of Syria need a political solution to a tragedy of apocalyptic proportions.  While the Syrian people wait for such a solution, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement remains committed to meeting the humanitarian needs of all parties.  Awe-inspiring work is being done by the Syrian Red Crescent and the ICRC.  Volunteers risk their lives to help fellow Syrians in their time of greatest need. Since the beginning of the conflict, 34 Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff and volunteers have been killed and many others have been wounded while carrying out their humanitarian mission.

The courage of these volunteers is astounding; however, they never should have been forced to make the ultimate sacrifice.  The Geneva Conventions, a binding treaty signed by every country on earth, prohibits armed groups from targeting humanitarian workers wearing the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems.  These emblems signify a commitment to providing impartial and neutral assistance to all people and must be respected by all parties.  The Geneva Conventions and related treaties are referred to as international humanitarian law (IHL).  Simply put, international humanitarian law is the law of war.  It defines what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior during armed conflict.  Specifically, it focuses on limiting the tactics and weapons used by armed groups and defining who these armed groups can target. IHL protects civilians, medical personnel, and those who have left the battlefield, as well as cultural, religious, and humanitarian buildings.

In addition to respecting these rules during times of armed conflict, all signatories are required to educate their armed forces and the general population about IHL.  The law charges every Red Cross and Red Crescent society around the world to carry out this task, including the American Red Cross.   As the International Services Coordinator for the Western Washington chapters, I work to educate the community about IHL in several ways.  Last fall, with support from the United States Institute of Peace, the Red Cross and Antioch University partnered to provide a course and lecture series.  Participants received instruction in the fundamentals of IHL and heard from a variety of speakers about how IHL is implemented during times of armed conflict.  One speaker, Rita Zawaideh, spoke about her organization Salaam Cultural Mission and their work providing medical care to Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

This month, we organized a workshop in partnership with Seattle University School of Law.  The workshop instructed local law students in the basics of IHL and also provided them with the opportunity to learn from legal professionals in the field.  By educating law students about IHL and each signatory’s obligations to respect the law, we are influencing the next generation of world leaders.  Today’s law students will be tomorrow’s politicians, military professionals, UN officials, and political decision makers. 

All of these programs are designed to increase respect for IHL and the humanitarian values embedded in the Geneva Conventions.  The American Red Cross is joined in this mission by the ICRC, the Syrian Red Crescent, and hundreds of national societies around the world. By educating people about the importance of IHL, we hope to make war less terrible for those who suffer through it. By insisting that all parties observe their legal and moral obligations under IHL, we fulfill our mission to advocate for the protection of lives and human dignity.  The devastation in Syria today proves this mission is more important than ever. 

If you are interested in learning more about IHL or in taking a free class in your community, please visit our website or contact

Equality for Women is Progress for All

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Story by Sarah Rothman, Western Washington Region, International Services and Language Bank Manager

Saturday, March 8th marked International Women’s Day.  This day of honoring women made me think about the many women that have impacted my life by shaping the world I live in or influencing the person that I have become. I think about my mom, who is the hardest working and most loving person I have ever known. She taught me to be accepting of everyone and to see the best in people. I think of women that have mentored me and guided me on my journey as an emerging leader. I think of women I have met all over the world who face extraordinary challenges on a daily basis and find ways to persevere and become role models in their families and communities. I think of women who I have never met but who have sacrificed everything and fought battles to pave the way for generations of women to come. They knew all along that equality for women is progress for all.

It’s hard to imagine a world without these fierce and inspiring women. One woman, in particular, changed the world during her time on this earth. Her legacy has impacted my life in more ways than I will ever know.

You have probably heard the name Clara Barton.  She is remembered as many things: a teacher, a nurse, an entrepreneur, a humanitarian, and a female government employee. She is probably most well-known, at least among those I associate with, as the founder of the American Red Cross.

Clara was born on December 25, 1821 in Massachusetts. At an early age, she found ways to be of service to others and earned the reputation of being a hard worker. She started her career as a teacher, always demanding the same pay as her male colleagues. After opening and successfully growing New Jersey’s first free school, the board passed Clara over and instead, hired a man to be the head of the school. Resentful and frustrated, Clara left for Washington, D.C. and was hired on as one of the first female government employees, receiving a salary equal to her male counterparts. She worked as a patent clerk until a new commissioner demoted all female employees due to the popular opinion that women in the workplace deprived men of rightful employment. 

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When the American civil war broke out in 1861, Clara arranged to have a substitute work for half her salary while she drew the other half in order to pay rent, organize supplies, and gather support for affected soldiers. Clara spent many sleepless nights caring for soldiers on both sides of the war. Although women were not allowed on the battlefront, Clara gained the trust of officials and was allowed to serve troops on the frontline, earning herself the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” She nearly lost her life when a bullet passed through her sleeve and killed the wounded man she was attending.

After Clara’s brother and nephew were killed, she started searching for missing soldiers. With the support and endorsement of President Abraham Lincoln, Clara established the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army (which I would highly recommend visiting if you are in D.C.), where she received and answered over 63,000 letters to families of soldiers and identified 22,000 missing men. She also traveled to locate and mark graves of 13,000 soldiers. Her initiative to bring about closure and reconnect loved ones was an early form of the Restoring Family Links program. 

During a visit to Europe, Clara learned about the International Red Cross movement and the Geneva Conventions. She returned to Washington, D.C. determined to bring this movement to the United States. She vigorously lobbied for the government to ratify the Geneva Conventions and to establish the American Red Cross. She added the concept of the Red Cross being involved in disaster relief, in addition to wartime responsibilities of the movement, which was later added to the Geneva Conventions as the “American Amendment.” After much resistance from multiple administrations and her continued persistence, the United States signed the international treaty and ratified laws that brought a shimmer of humanity to the horrors of war. Clara succeeded through her powers of persuasion during a time when women couldn’t even vote. As one of the few female voices in a male dominated world, Clara worked against impossible odds and proved that equality for women is progress for all. Clara Barton then founded the American Red Cross and became the first president of the organization.

Clara continued to face many challenges throughout her career as she ran the organization in the first couple decades of its existence. Despite these challenges, she impacted countless lives through her own efforts and those of the American Red Cross. Throughout her entire life, Clara was a fearless leader in the humanitarian movement as well as the movement towards equality for women. Although she hasn't been on this earth for almost a century, it’s hard to imagine a world without her legacy.

Contributing to Social Justice through Restoring Family Links

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Story by Cody Austin, Western Washington Region, International Services Coordinator

Today is World Day of Social Justice.  Simply put, social justice exists when people are allowed to obtain their due. Human dignity, a fair and compassionate distribution of resources, and the elimination of discrimination and oppression are all part of social justice.  Through programs such as Restoring Family Links (RFL), the American Red Cross contributes to social justice around the world.  As a staff member with this program in Seattle, most of my casework involves the Certificate of Dentition program, which helps Iraqi refugees obtain what is rightfully theirs.  

In the months immediately following the First Gulf War, Iraq was engulfed by a revolution. On March 2nd, 1991, an army commander in Basra fired a tank shell through a massive portrait of Saddam Hussein hanging in the town square.  His act served as the spark for a rebellion that would see rebel forces take over 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.  When much-anticipated help from the United States never arrived, the rebellion was brutally crushed by Hussein and the Republican Guard. 

Thousands fled south to try and escape merciless bombing campaigns and barbaric assaults from the regime’s helicopter gunships.  Violent repression forced men, women, and children to abandon their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.  They left behind their possessions, their homes, their careers, and their dreams for the future.  Over 33,000 people, many of them former soldiers, crossed into Saudi Arabia seeking refuge. 

After escaping tremendous violence, Iraqi refugees faced the incredible challenge of surviving desert conditions without the assistance of the Saudi government.  Saudi Arabia denied victims official refugee status, leaving them without the most basic necessities until international NGOs and the UN intervened.  Once official camps were established, the refugees were visited and registered by representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). After the war, thousands of these individuals resettled in the United States.

Since then, the government of Iraq has established a program to provide reparations to Iraqi nationals who fled to Saudi Arabia.  The key document required to apply for this reparations program is a Certificate of Detention from the ICRC proving their status as a refugee who fled Iraq following the First Gulf War.  Iraqis living in the U.S. apply for these certificates through their local Red Cross chapter.  The reparations offered by the Iraqi government are a vital move towards establishing social justice.  Payments and benefits will never make up for what was lost and the pain experienced, but reparations are powerful because they offer recognition of past injustices and show that a government is taking steps to restore human dignity and make things right. 

Every week, I meet men and women looking for certificates and help them file a request with the ICRC.  These individuals have made wonderful lives for themselves in Western Washington, but they are also victims of a great crime: the theft of their hometowns, careers, and futures. Some left behind family members and fiancées.  All have had to wait over 20 years for some kind of justice, in addition to the long months of wondering when documentation from the ICRC will arrive.  When the certificates finally do arrive, all anxiety melts away and is replaced by an incredible sense of relief and gratitude.  As a member of an organization committed to protecting humanitarian values and social justice, I consider it a great privilege to help Iraqi refugees obtain their due and restore their human dignity.

Five year search for sister ends with Red Cross Help

Story by Katie Kusnierek
Photos by Daniel Soderstrom

 Asha Sugule (above) was separated from her sister Layla for five years when the Red Cross reconnected them in a few months time.

 Asha Sugule (above) was separated from her sister Layla for five years when the Red Cross reconnected them in a few months time.

After five years of searching on her own, Asha Sugule turned to the Red Cross in Minneapolis for help finding her sister somewhere, she believed, in East Africa.  In 2006, Asha Sugule married and moved with her new husband from East Africa to the United States, leaving behind her 5-year-old sister Layla. Fortunately, Asha was able to leave Layla with family friends who had a telephone. The separation left a huge void in Asha’s life, but she was grateful to be able to speak with her sister and know that she was doing well.

Asha continued to have regular conversations with Layla for two to three years until the family caring for young Layla abruptly left Nairobi, Kenya, and could no longer be reached by phone.  The family could not afford to have a phone and Layla was too young to find the means to contact Asha. So, Asha and Layla lost all contact with each other.  Distraught at the thought of her sister being so far away from her and so alone, Asha feared for Layla’s safety who was now a young lady and in need of her older sister’s guidance and love.

 In Minneapolis, Yahye Mohamed (right) was the first Red Cross worker to meet with Asha and start the search for her sister Layla.

 In Minneapolis, Yahye Mohamed (right) was the first Red Cross worker to meet with Asha and start the search for her sister Layla.

Asha tried desperately to find out any information that she could on the whereabouts of her sister. Asha only had rumors from friends and neighbors to go off of and continued searching for Layla for five years with no success.

Finally, Asha contacted friends in Yemen who told her to try contacting the Red Cross for help in the search for her sister.  Much to Asha’s surprise, Red Cross workers with the Restoring Family Links program were able to track down Layla in a matter of months and deliver a message to Asha with Layla’s contact information this past September. After years of separation, Asha was able to reconnect with her sister, who had moved to Ethiopia, married, and was pregnant with her first child.

Today, Asha and Layla are able to speak on the phone and are once again a part of each other’s lives. Asha is hopeful that someday Layla may move to the United States so that they can be reunited, but for now she is happy to have her sister back in her life.

Asha encourages others in her community to contact the Red Cross for help and support.  “I am so happy because someone was able to find my family member,” says Asha. She wants others to feel the same sense of relief and joy that the Red Cross gave her.

For more information on what the American Red Cross is doing in the Northern Minnesota Region, please visit their blog.

From Spain to Minnesota, and still with the Red Cross

Story and photos by Kelly Lynch, Northern Minnesota Region, Communications Intern

Sara Parcero Leites, a former Spanish Red Cross volunteer, now lives in Minnesota and volunteers with the American Red Cross.

Sara Parcero Leites, a former Spanish Red Cross volunteer, now lives in Minnesota and volunteers with the American Red Cross.

 Four years ago when she was just 16 years old, Sara Parcero Leites was one of twelve people chosen (out of hundreds of applicants) for a scholarship to the United World College.  Today, she’s a junior at Macalester College, studying Political Science and International Studies with a focus in Human Rights and Humanitarianism, and she’s the new Restoring Family Links Intern for the American Red Cross in Minnesota.

Sara’s already familiar with the Red Cross. While in Spain she volunteered with the Spanish Red Cross, working as a wilderness leader at children’s camps and training school children in emergency preparedness. She wishes she could have done more to help the Spanish Red Cross, but her roles were limited because she was under 18. “Volunteer roles are different in Spain. Since I was under 18 I could not do a lot, but I tried to do as much as I could. I worked mostly with kids, the elderly, and at centers for kids with cancer and other illnesses.”

New Restoring Family Links intern, Sara Parcero Leites, will help reconnect family members separated by war or disaster.

New Restoring Family Links intern, Sara Parcero Leites, will help reconnect family members separated by war or disaster.

As an intern with the Restoring Family Links Program, Sara will help restore communication between family members separated because of war, disasters and other humanitarian situations around the world. “It’s a big process,” she says. “We get a request from a family member and then we try to get in touch with the family member who’s lost and deliver a message between them.” Her plans include sharing with the local Spanish-speaking community information about how the Red Cross helped reconnect families after Hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid struck Mexico in mid September.

Sara’s excited about working with Minnesota’s growing Spanish-speaking community and using her language skills to share awareness about Red Cross services. Soon she’ll be speaking on Spanish radio station La Raza in Minneapolis. Someday Sara hopes to work for the United Nations, but until then she wants to accomplish a lot during her time with the American Red Cross. “I really want to reach out to the Spanish community because we can do good work with it.”

Story originally posted on Northern Minnesota Region's blog