Today's Headlines, Tomorrow's Humanitarians

Performance during the opening ceremony of the General Assembly of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Photo credit:   IFRC

Performance during the opening ceremony of the General Assembly of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Photo credit: IFRC

Story by Jane Zimmerman, Executive Director, Washington, DC

What news headlines did you hear or read today?  Did they include a bombing, a kidnapping, or an attack on civilians half a world away?  Or maybe a hurricane or cyclone which sent people fleeing while wiping out everything?  How does that headline concern you?  Do you ever wonder what becomes of these people, after the tragedies of today’s headlines makes room for tomorrow’s? 

I was asking myself these questions again while moderating a very special panel on Restoring Family Links (RFL) at the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in Geneva, December 8, 2015. 

To my right sat Monowara Sarker, who had just been awarded the prestigious Henry Dunant Medal.  Ms. Sarker was 17 years-old when war broke out in her native Bangladesh, and she fled her village.  Thankfully, she found shelter, protection and then a job with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a Tracing Officer.

The end of the Bangladesh War of Independence resulted in mass population movements between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Over four years, nearly 320,000 people moved between countries. The ICRC and the Bangladeshi Red Crescent opened more than 18,000 tracing requests, exchanged 2.8 million Red Cross Messages, and reunited several hundred families.  Ms. Sarker’s job was to last six months.  She will now be retiring from it after 45 years.  Her caseload includes families still seeking relatives from 1971, as well as prison detainees, and migrant families and children fleeing violence by land and sea.

To my left sat American Red Cross RFL Advocate & Volunteer Extraordinaire Thu-Thuy Truong.  Like the 130 other people in the room, I sat transfixed as Thu-Thuy shared the story of her family’s separation from her father during the fall of Saigon in 1975, their perilous escape by sea, and the joyful reunion with their father in the Unites States, thanks to the American Red Cross. 

I have heard Thu-Thuy tell her story many times, each affecting me more profoundly.  Why?  Because her story isn’t over.  Not until she has helped others learn of the whereabouts or fates of their loved ones.  For years, Thu-Thuy has reached out to migrant communities through the American Red Cross to make them aware of RFL services and how to access them.  Through her outreach, another Vietnamese recently opened a tracing request and became reunited with family in the US, after believing they had been lost many years ago in Southeast Asia.

The third panelist was Claire Schocher-Döring, the Head of Tracing for the Austrian Red Cross.  Claire described the ongoing challenges of helping Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi, Eritrean, and other migrants fleeing their homelands for Germany and Western Europe.  She was peppered with questions from the Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers in the audience.  I had two main take-aways from Claire’s presentation. 

First, RFL was practically nowhere on the Austrian Red Cross’ list of priorities prior to the summer of 2015, but now it is one of the top two.  Mobilizing and training volunteers has enabled them to meet previously unimaginable demands. 

Second, I was struck by the story of a Syrian mother who became separated from her four children on the migrant trail.  The mother had nothing, not even a phone, but she had advised her children beforehand to seek the Red Cross or Red Crescent if they became lost.  They could be trusted, and they could help them find each other.  That is exactly what happened.  The children became separated from their mother and each other.  They went to the Red Cross, and one by one, they were all reunited.

These Syrian children and their mother still face many hardships and challenges.  But when they were lost, desperate, and vulnerable, the Red Cross and Red Crescent family was there for them.  Like the panelists, this family and millions of other migrants and refugees know that the Red Cross Fundamental Principles – Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary Service, Unity, and Universality – are not abstract.  They are how we protect the vulnerable and save lives.  They allow families, communities, and societies to repair the damage, try to heal, and transform their suffering into a positive vision and course of action to promote human dignity. 

I hope and believe that these four children – along with many others helped by the Red Cross and Red Crescent around the world – will be the volunteers and champions of tomorrow for humanity long after their tragedies and suffering have disappeared from the headlines.