Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“The Red Cross was there to help me and I really appreciate it.”

By Dorothy He

For Kaydian Grennan of Far Rockaway, it was a typical morning at her uncle’s two-story house. She and her four young children were enjoying their usual routine of breakfast while watching TV. Without warning, the fire alarm went off, and thick smoke started billowing from the stairwell down into the kitchen.

Kaydian grabbed her kids and looked for an escape. She recalled, “I knew I wasn’t cooking. I smelled something burning, like rubber, and saw a dark, dark smoke. We just ran—we only had on pajamas.”

When the Grennan family had made it safely outside, they used a neighbor’s phone to dial 911. First responders came to put out the fire, which was caused by the air conditioning unit in the house. Unfortunately, the house was destroyed. 

Kaydian was worried. Her uncle and cousin were her only family. She thought, “What am I going to do? I have no clothes, nowhere to go.”

Then, within the hour, the Red Cross arrived on the scene. After speaking with Kaydian, they provided her and her family with a two-night stay at a local hotel and emergency funds for food and clothing.

Having been affected by Hurricane Sandy last year, with no light or power for weeks, Kaydian was especially distraught at the loss of her home. However, having the support of the Red Cross gave her extra reassurance.

Kaydian said, “You don’t know how [relieved] I felt when the Red Cross responder told me, ‘I will place you in a hotel,’ and gave me that card. “The Red Cross was there to help me and I really appreciate it,” Kaydian said. “My kids and I slept comfortably last night.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Upholding the Rules of War in NYC

by Michael de Vulpillieres, American Red Cross Greater NY Region

Every day we are confronted with images of war—on television, online, in movies, even in videogames. With news of refugees crossing borders and ambulances under attack, the recent crisis in Syria has brought added attention to armed conflict and the consequences it can have on millions of civilians. These tragic events remind us that even war should have limits.

This is why understanding International Humanitarian Law (IHL)—guidelines that seek to protect civilians and regulate the methods of warfare—is so critical.

The Red Cross was founded on these ideals more than 150 years ago and today in New York City they are actively promoted by two Red Cross offices. The American Red Cross in Greater New York does so locally, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the United Nations defends them on a global stage.

Rooted in Wartime Relief

Horrified by the sight of thousands of wounded soldiers lying helpless and abandoned after a huge battle in Solferino, Italy in 1859, Swiss businessman Henri Dunant felt compelled to act. In the years that followed, Dunant set forth a process that led to the creation of “voluntary relief societies that could be trained to care for the wounded in time of war.” These national societies eventually united under the Red Cross symbol.

As the Red Cross network grew, its scope evolved to encompass not only issues of conflict, but also natural disasters, health crises and other humanitarian emergencies.

Although there are several entities that make up the Red Cross (or the Red Cross Movement, as it is also called) today, one branch focuses on situations of conflict: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Their mission is to provide humanitarian assistance for people affected by conflict and promote laws that protect victims such as civilians and health workers in Syria.

Photo: Liz Borda
Assisting Families Separated by War and Promoting IHL in NYC

The American Red Cross in Greater New York mainly provides assistance following local disasters. However, as part of the Red Cross Movement, the office does at times deal with issues related to war. When it does, it works through the ICRC.

One such program is Restoring Family Links, which helps reconnect family members who are separated by war. By relying on its staff and partners around the world, the ICRC is able to serve those searching for lost loved ones. Due to this extensive network, for example, the Greater NY Red Cross is able to help New Yorkers like Christine Green—who fled her native Liberia in the mid 1990s—reconnect with family members she did not even know were alive.

“I did not hear from my family in Liberia for 14 years,” says Green. “Thanks to the Red Cross, I was able to reconnect with them.”

Another way the Greater NY Red Cross promotes the ICRC mission is by teaching high school students the basic principles of IHL. The goal of the curriculum is to inspire future humanitarians to understand when conflict intersects with the rights and protections of civilians. Lessons taught during the program also help teenagers contextualize current events they read about.

Seventeen-year-old Johanna Monge from Queens was a student who participated in the IHL curriculum. The class has helped her focus her future career path as well. Monge now aspires to pursue international relations in order to become involved in humanitarian work. She says of the IHL classes, “they really helped me understand the treacherous path that humanitarian aid workers have to go through in order to help the Syrians in need.”

Defending IHL at the UN

While the Greater New York Red Cross promotes ICRC principles locally, less than a mile to the east, the ICRC office at the United Nations does so on a global stage.
The ICRC has held Observer Status at the UN since 1990, which allows it to participate in UN meetings, committees and debates. This includes thematic discussions about the protection of civilians or children in armed conflict, as well as geographic crises like the conflicts in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, the ICRC voices its opinion and provides input within its frame of expertise.

“We make sure that ICRC concerns are fed into the UN and shared with member states,” says Walter Fuellemann, head of delegation to the United Nations at the ICRC.

An example of ICRC advocacy is Health Care in Danger, a program launched last year with the intent to raise awareness of the issue of violence against healthcare.

Attacking healthcare workers and facilities and deliberately obstructing the efforts of the wounded to find help are still common features of conflicts throughout the world. While the Red Cross Movement is “rooted in the protection of health care in conflict zones,” as Fuelleman emphasizes, many of those who try to help are injured in the process. The goal of Health Care in Danger is to mobilize action within the international community in order make a difference for those affected on the ground.

So far, the program has seen much success. “We strive to include Health Care in Danger language into resolutions and presidential statements at the level of the Security Council,” says Fuellemann. “We have been able to do so on several occasions.”

Another major opportunity for the organization is at the UN General Assembly (GA). There, the ICRC engages states on the topics of humanitarian action, peacekeeping and humanitarian law. Fuellemann describes the ICRC’s role in the GA as unique, saying, “The GA allows the ICRC to interact in the same place and time with every state in the world, all of which are signatories to the Geneva Conventions.”

Nevertheless, the work of the ICRC at the UN is not limited to advocacy. The ICRC’s presence in nearly every conflict zone around the world allows it to provide real-time updates from the ground, which helps shape UN policy.

In Syria, the ICRC and local partners have been providing humanitarian assistance to millions of people affected by the fighting, but there are considerable challenges.

“The suffering of civilians in Syria has now reached unprecedented levels,” says Fuellemann. “There are acute shortages of food, water and medical supplies in a number of areas that have been sealed off for months and to which the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have not been given access.”

These grave concerns make the ICRC’s efforts here in New York and around the world all the more urgent.
Photo: Syrian Arab Red Crescent

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

“I appreciate everything Red Cross has done for us.”

By Dorothy He

Ronald Bethea of the Bronx awoke one morning to a dark apartment. Thinking his lights might not be working, he went to check on the breakers. That’s when he noticed a nightmarish heat coming from his son John Faison’s room—it was an electrical fire.

Ronald recalled, “I ran out of the apartment. Smoke was everywhere. It was black; I couldn’t even see my hand. I ran out the front door into the hallway. I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to call somebody.’”

A neighbor saw Ronald and offered assistance, but didn’t have a phone. In a panic, Ronald ran back into his bedroom and snatched up his cell phone. After making it safely outside, he dialed 911 and waited for assistance. First responders arrived on the scene within 10 minutes, as did the Red Cross.

As EMS workers aided the wheezing Ronald, who suffers from asthma, Red Cross responders spoke to his family members who had rushed to the scene. Ronald called John, who works in the music industry, and thankfully was not home at the time of the fire.

The Red Crossers then talked with Ronald. He and John were offered temporary housing and access to emergency funds, but declined the housing, as they were able to stay with one of Ronald’s sisters.
 Nevertheless, a volunteer gave them contact information for the Red Cross.

When Ronald and John came to Red Cross headquarters in Manhattan, their first concern was housing.

Ronald worried, “We have no other place to go. We’re not homeless, but [at the same time], we are.” A Red Cross caseworker assisted the pair in their search with a referral to the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and emergency funds to cover basic necessities.

“Words can’t say ... more. I appreciate everything Red Cross has done for us,” Ronald said. “They were on point from the time we walked through the door.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Red Cross Workers Learn About the Evolving Role of Recovery

On Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, Ken Curtin, federal disaster recovery coordinator for FEMA Region II, spoke to American Red Cross Greater New York Region workers about the historical context of recovery, the evolving nature of recovery operations and the partnership the Red Cross has with the federal government in recovery efforts. 

FEMA Region II includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Curtin has nearly 40 years of experience in disaster and emergency human services, and has worked on assignments in 25 states and 31 countries. He formerly served as disaster services director for the Red Cross Greater New York Region.

Pictured L-R: Malcolm Hardy, Red Cross Government Liaison; Jessica Pavone, Senior Director, New York Long Term Recovery and Ken Curtin, FEMA Region II Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Remembering Charlie DeStefano

Charlie DeStefano, a Red Cross volunteer for 18 years, truly embodied the humanitarian spirit of our organization, giving of himself to help New Yorkers when they needed it the most.

As a member of the Staten Island Red Cross Disaster Action Team, Charlie responded to hundreds of local emergencies—fires, floods and building collapses—helping countless residents recover. Whether assisting with housing, delivering supplies or simply offering a shoulder to lean on, Charlie did so with the utmost compassion and professionalism.

Charlie also came forward during some of the most tragic times our city has known. Following the attacks of 9/11, Charlie worked tirelessly to support families and first responders. More recently, in the hours, weeks and months following Superstorm Sandy, Charlie was out in the community driving Red Cross vehicles he loved so much, delivering supplies and providing comfort.

He passed his love of volunteering onto his wife Nancy. For nearly 12 years the two formed a dedicated Red Cross volunteer team.

Charlie has been a role model for us all and an inspiration for future generations of Red Crossers. Our thoughts are with his family.