Tuesday, January 3, 2017

International Services: Restoring Family Links

By Stan Frank, American Red Cross

There is nothing more heartbreaking than when someone has lost track of a family member and does not know where they are, if he or she is dead or alive, healthy or sick. Psychologists say that not knowing, not having any resolution one way or the other about the condition of a family member, is often worse than learning of someone’s death. In death, there is at least an ending, a resolution, closure. Not knowing is a continuous mental burden that can weigh heavily on an individual for a lifetime.

Globally, the Red Cross Red Crescent network, of which the American Red Cross is a member, has worked for more than 130 years to help the world’s most vulnerable. As part of its Restoring Family Links (RFL) program, the International Services Department of the American Red Cross offers worldwide tracing services to family members who have lost track of each other as a result of humanitarian crises such as armed conflict, natural disasters and other factors. For families of displaced persons, these services provide hope and a way to restore contact with loved ones.

One of the most active regions in the country for Restoring Family Links is the Greater New York Region. Typically, the Greater New York regional office handles 150 to 200 new cases annually for people seeking connections with lost family members throughout the world. To initiate a case, a person will contact the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the Red Cross/Red Crescent office in their area and submit an official tracing inquiry. The tracing inquiry provides all detailed information available on the person being sought. The information includes basic details such as full name, gender, date of birth, last known residence, profession, etc. as well as information on the reason for the lost connection (i.e. war, natural disaster, international migration, etc.), date of last contact and any other relevant information that could help in a search, such as photos, birth certificate, maps, etc.

The tracing inquiry is then forwarded to the American Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, D.C. where it is evaluated and sent on to a local chapter caseworker for follow up. Depending on the situation, there are numerous ways a caseworker can seek to locate someone including the following:
  • Phone or write a letter to the person if that information is available in the Tracing Inquiry
  • Visit the last known address of the individual and inquire if he or she is known there
  • Conduct an Internet search and check the White Pages
  • Search through social networking websites
  • Check with refugee resettlement agencies
  • Contact local ethnic or refugee organizations
  • Check with the Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Check with places of worship and professional associations
  • Check obituaries and cemetery records
If searches are not successful in the U.S. or abroad, it is possible to utilize media to search for a missing individual. With the approval of American Red Cross Headquarters, a Red Cross chapter may utilize targeted media outreach to locate a sought person.

For the cases that are initiated in the U.S., the procedure is similar. An inquirer would open a Red Cross tracing case in New York, for example, which would then be submitted to the American Red Cross Headquarters where it is evaluated and sent on to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the Red Cross/Red Crescent society in the relevant country for follow up. A caseworker in the local office abroad would then search for the person using whatever methods necessary.

In addition to tracing inquiries, the RFL program also provides other services including Red Cross Messages, Health and Welfare Inquiries, International Disaster Inquiries and Holocaust and WWII Tracing and Documentation services.

Red Cross Messages are used to send written messages between separated family members. These are used when the sender knows the location of their family member but no means of communication are available. These messages are often used by individuals in refugee camps or detention centers.

Health and Welfare Inquiries are used to assist particularly vulnerable individuals, including the elderly or ill, minor children and mentally or physically handicapped people to reestablish communication with family members. For these cases, the immediate loss of communication is not due to armed conflict or natural disaster, but rather due to a family emergency or vulnerability.

International Disaster Inquiries are used to assist family members who have lost communication as a result of a sudden, large-scale international disaster. Availability of service depends on the capacity of the Red Cross or Red Crescent national society in the affected country where the disaster occurs.

Holocaust and WWII Tracing and Documentation services aim to provide information about the fate of family members who were victims of the Holocaust, or were separated by WWII and its aftermath. Such information can help reconnect families, and assist individuals in securing clarification of internment in concentration and forced labor camps. This service often relies on collaboration between several Red Cross societies and the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany. The latter houses one of the largest Holocaust archives worldwide (about 30 million documents) and works in close relationship with the Global Red Cross to provide documents to beneficiaries.

A good example of a recent successful search for a missing family member comes from the Chicago and North Illinois Red Cross Region. Last summer, a man named Jemel who was staying in a Kenyan refugee camp, sought Red Cross help in finding his missing uncle, Daniel, an Ethiopian man whose last known address was somewhere in the Chicago area. Katie, a new RFL caseworker was assigned to deliver a Red Cross Message to Daniel.

Working with her RFL Program Manager, Michelle, Katie reviewed all the case data and tried to locate Daniel but was unsuccessful. The phone number in the case file proved to be inactive; Google searches led to a dead end; a year-old Twitter account was no help; even visits to his last known residence came up cold.

Finally, Katie and Michelle decided to reach out to Chicago’s Ethiopian community for help. They began visiting Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago, but no one recognized Daniel’s name or photo. They even tried the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago with no success.

It was not until Katie and Michelle visited the Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant that their luck changed. The owner of the restaurant said he knew almost everyone from Ethiopia in Chicago and was confident he could find Daniel. Sure enough, the restaurant owner located Daniel and two weeks later Daniel phoned the Red Cross office and spoke to Katie who set up a meeting with him. He was thrilled to learn that his nephew, Jemel, was alive and safe after so many years of separation. The two men are now reconnected and back in communication with their families.

Ethiopian Restaurant Owner and Katie, Red Cross RFL Caseworker
Needless to say, keeping track of all the details involved in the worldwide tracing services of the Red Cross is an enormous task. In order to manage this task, the American Red Cross has developed its own proprietary Restoring Family Links Case Management System. This is a web-based system that enables RFL caseworkers to see, create, update and monitor information for all their chapter’s cases. Caseworkers can use the system to attach letters, photos, maps or other documents for their cases. In addition to maintaining information on tracing services, the system also permits caseworkers to send and receive Red Cross Messages, Health and Welfare Inquiries and International Disaster Inquiries.

In the Greater New York Region, the Restoring Family Links Program is managed by Sara Onvani. Sara assumed her current position this past April, and is also a former International Services volunteer herself (Boston Chapter). Sara holds a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and a Master’s degree in Laboratory Medicine from University of Toronto. Prior to joining the Red Cross, she served as a consultant on health-related international development projects and spent several years performing medical research. 

Sara Onvani, Regional Program Specialist, 
International Services Department of Greater New York 
Sara says, “ever since Clara Barton established the American Red Cross more than 130 years ago, the Red Cross has been there globally for those affected by disasters, war and humanitarian crises of every kind. Restoring Family Links and its worldwide tracing function is but one of the many services we provide. There is no greater feeling than bringing together family members who have been separated for years or bringing closure to people who have been carrying the heavy burden of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. I go home every night feeling a sense of satisfaction that I have contributed in some way to help relieve the pain and suffering of someone in need. There is no greater feeling than that!”

To learn more about International Services and Restoring Family Links, contact us at Redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies, call us at 202-303-1600 or visit our blog at Restoring FamilyLinksBlog.com.


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