TUCSON, Ariz. — When refugees come to America, they are often forced to leave loved ones behind. It’s a painful reality thousands of refugees face when fleeing war or natural disasters.
Once these refugees arrive in America, they can spend months or years on their own. But, thanks to a special team operated by the Red Cross, these refugees now have a chance to reconnect with those they thought were lost forever.
Elissa Maish has worked with the Red Cross for years reuniting families through this program. It’s how she met Fidele, once a refugee himself. The two now work together on hundreds of cases per year.
It’s a complex process that can take years, but it starts when Maish gets a call from a refugee who needs help. She starts the search by collecting information on the loved one the refugee is looking for, the last known place they were seen and any contacts in the refugee’s home country that could help.
Once she has some information, she will pass it to Red Cross volunteers who are stationed around the world.
“They actually get out into these remote villages, and they will actually look, just like a detective, ask around as to, you know, where these people might have gone,” said Maish.
This job is one that comes with serious risk. Volunteers often must enter war zones to try and locate the missing family members.
“Many volunteers have perished because of violence in completing their mission,” said Maish. “It's very cumbersome, but worth it.”
The reward of these missions is one Fidele struggled to put into words. He fled his home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo years ago, but had to leave his entire family behind.
“You see your loved one killed, chopped the head off, and they lose everything. The people are no longer people,” said Fidele.
He had no idea where his father was as he began making a new life in Arizona. It was almost a decade before he called Restoring Family Links for help.
“When you don’t have a family when you’re a refugee, you don't feel grounded. You may have everything that people get in a happy country like the U.S., but you don't have a family,” said Fidele. “I felt that I could no longer take it alone here.”
Maish sent search teams across Africa for almost a year, going village to village asking for Fidele’s father.
“He literally thought that his family was gone,” said Maish.
But finally, after several leads and dead ends, the search paid off. Fidele’s father was alive.
Fidele describes the moment he heard his father’s voice for the first time: “So much of crying. So much crying."
“He was everything for me. I went to school because of him. He was the first one to write a letter for me to request a scholarship for university. He knew too much of my story that I didn't know. There are many things that was not told to me when I was younger, that he kept. So, losing a person like that one was to lose a library for me,” said Fidele of his father.
Now, his whole world is just a phone call away. Fidele and his dad talk several times each week. Cell service is still unreliable, but having the option to call is a relief to Fidele. Maish now knows Fidele’s father, too.
Fidele’s newfound happiness only energizes him to work even harder to help refugees just like him.
“If we can help those people to really reconnect to their family, to get every support we can, it will be a very good thing."
It’s moments like those and tokens like these that keep Maish going too.
“The good news stays with you, but you're always working on the next case,” she said.
These two know firsthand: it’s this special support that will help a struggling refugee walk with one less burden, and they said it is a privilege to be that support for so many.
“Refugees have so much heart. Their goal is to find work and to be a productive member of our society, so anything that can be done to include them, to be inclusive, is going to make it better for the entire country,” said Maish.
If you’d like more information on Restoring Family Links, click HERE.