Remembering the Red Cross on World Day of Social Justice

 Dirty water cistern where farmers and their families gather water in Northeastern Brazil

Dirty water cistern where farmers and their families gather water in Northeastern Brazil

Story by Katie Sives, Northeastern Pennsylvania Region, International Services Volunteer

For World Day of Social Justice, it is important to keep in mind the incredible work the International Services team of the American Red Cross does to bring social justice to migrant and refugee communities globally. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, in his statement for World Day of Social Justice said “we must do more to empower individuals through decent work, support people through social protection, and ensure the voices of the poor and marginalized are heard.” The American Red Cross International Services team does just this, giving its time and resources to connect families separated by conflict, war, or humanitarian crisis in its Restoring Family Links (RFL) program.

Humanitarian crises happen every day around the globe. In 2012, I had the opportunity to live and research in the semi-arid northeast region of Brazil. I studied the intersection of public policy and poverty and its impact on small-scale agrarian communities. This region is beset by drought and holds the lowest development indices in all of Brazil. Unable to sustain livelihoods in an environment where crops wither, cattle die in droves, and municipal water trucks bring filthy water to fill cisterns of those desperate enough to drink it, agrarian farmers and their families have no option but to migrate. Often they move to overcrowded favelas (shanty towns) in coastal cities, seeking employment and a better shot at survival for their families. For many across the world, scenes like this are familiar; in desperation, fear and hope, they leave their homes crossing national and international boundaries in search for a better life. Unfortunately, during this process many are separated from their loved ones.

WDSJ Pic2.jpg

Each year, migrants and refugees end their journey in the United States, disconnected from their family members. However, the injustices they faced in their country of origin do not dissipate when they reach the U.S. Psychological and emotional distress caused by losing contact with a loved one, whether it is a child, parent or sibling, weighs heavily on the conscience. The Red Cross/Crescent Movement and its global partners open their doors to refugees and migrants, reconnecting them with their family members using tracing and messaging services. This gives peace of mind to the person who is searching and knowledge of the well being of the lost family member(s).

For this year’s World Day of Social Justice, we should remember the unique services provided by the International Services Restoring Family Links (RFL) team of the American Red Cross. Their work is essential to bringing about social justice for marginalized communities. We should be mindful that we can become agents of social justice by serving the needs of our community members and in the words of Ban Ki-Moon, “empower individuals through decent work, support people through social protection, and ensure the voices of the poor and marginalized are heard.” 

Contributing to Social Justice through Restoring Family Links

World Day Social Justice - Cody.jpg

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.

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.