Choosing to leave behind your father, mother, siblings, cousins—all in the midst of war—in order to insure your children’s safety is a choice many can’t imagine. For two South Sudanese women, that choice became their very grim reality. The constant fear of what had happened to their loved ones, thousands of miles away from their current life in Omaha, Nebraska, brought them to the American Red Cross.
“I came to the Red Cross so they can help,” said Nyakong Machougo, a 32 year old mother.
She sits with Shweta Goswami, a Red Cross volunteer, ready to tell her story. Shweta is part of the Restoring Family Links program which helps families separated by war and disaster. Annually, the American Red Cross assists more than 5,000 such families trying to reconnect with their loved ones in the U.S. and around the world.
Nyakong’s and her family became separated when fighting broke out in her hometown of Bentiu. While she was able to flee, the rest of her family could not. The last news she received about Bentiu was on the television– her town had completely burned down. As war and genocide continue to intensify in South Sudan, so do her worries. She has tried repeatedly to call her family but cannot get through.
For about an hour, Nyakong tells Shweta about her family: where they last lived, their ages, the color of their eyes, physical characteristics – anything that could help a caseworker with the South Sudan Red Cross identify them. Nyakong isn’t the only person searching for family. Rhoda Naylera Gatlek’s story is woefully similar.
Rhoda is also from South Sudan, a small town called Leer, also fleeing from the violence that has become part of daily life. For more than a decade, Rhoda and her family fled on foot to neighboring Ethiopia during outbreaks of fighting, returning to Leer when it subsided. Finally, Rhoda, her husband and two children left South Sudan in 1999 for good and settled in Omaha. She occasionally heard from her sister Anna but on December 17, 2013, she heard from her for the last time. It was becoming very dangerous, and with no money, Anna was unsure where she would go.
Anna told Rhoda other dire news. “All our homes in Leer were destroyed. They were burned down.”
Just as Nyakong had done, Rhoda met with a trained Red Cross caseworker to describe her missing family members, where they had lived and handed them a picture of her sister, Anna.
Both women know and understand the reconnection process takes time; time for their cases to arrive in Washington D.C. before being sent to Geneva, Switzerland (home of the International Red Cross) and then on to a caseworker with the South Sudan Red Cross. While time may not be on their side, these two women say they now have hope because they came to the American Red Cross.
Last year, the Red Cross assisted those seeking to reconnect with their loved ones from countries such as the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, South Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan and facilitated the exchange of 279,000 messages. For more information visit www.redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.