Mark Owens, an American Red Cross case worker in the Restoring Family Links program, recently spent two weeks in Kenya working with Red Cross colleagues trying to reconnect families torn apart by the crisis in the Horn of Africa.
Many American Red Cross family tracing cases are from this region of eastern Africa, and Owens has been working with colleagues in the region for years to link parents with children, brothers with sisters, and wives with husbands. Before his recent trip to the Dadaab refugee camps, his primary contact with many Red Cross colleagues in the region was a signature on the bottom of form letters on American Red Cross letterhead.
In addition to helping connect refugees with their families, one goal of the trip was to strengthen relationships with colleagues in the region.
“It was almost like coming home and seeing family I hadn’t seen in a long time,” he said. “We’d been working together but we’d never met. We were all very happy to see each other.”
He recalled arriving in Dagahaley, a sprawling section of Dadaab, in the early morning hours. It was already getting hot, he said, noting that heat is a constant there. His Kenya Red Cross host walked with him towards a low, cinderblock house in the middle of a scrubby field. A rickety black bicycle was parked out front.
Inside, Owens saw four Kenya Red Cross volunteers huddled around a stack of Red Cross messages – the handwritten letters that are used to send family news back and forth between refugees and their loved ones all over the world – deciding who would deliver which messages to which families. They all looked up and smiled, waving him inside. They peppered him with questions about Restoring Family Links services in the United States and he spoke with them about how they got involved with their work in the camp.Mark Owens and Kenya volunteers meeting for the first time. Somali family uses the Kenya Red Cross phone bank to reconnect with loved ones.
All of the Kenya Red Cross volunteers working in the camp are refugees themselves, having fled the violence in their native Somalia. They are young, all of them in their twenties, and have spent most of their lives in this camp. Their lives are defined by the boundaries of this place since according to regulations set by the Kenyan government, they are not allowed to go beyond the borders of the camp.
For the volunteers, Owens said, this work is one of the few chances they have to their skills, to make a difference in the lives of the families they assist, and to be a part of something valuable that reaches beyond the desperation of this place. It is evident in their words and actions that they cherish the importance of their work, which involves not only collecting tracing requests to search for missing relatives but also just checking on how clients are doing.
Volunteer Ali Ahmed told Owens that “the people here, they receive food, clothing and shelter but to receive peace of mind, they still need to know what has happened to their families.”
In addition to hand written messages, the Kenya Red Cross has set up a phone bank that residents of the camp can use to call family members once a link has been established. So far, 7000 people have been able to hear the voice of a loved one on the other end of the line.
What struck Owens the most was how people reacted to the Red Cross volunteers in the camps. “Everyone is always smiling when they see the Red Cross.”