ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA — The chaos and confusion that accompany war and disaster can separate families when they need each other most. When this happens, the Red Cross joins the search across international borders, offering a unique service to help families reconnect.
Emmet Larry hasn’t seen his sister since June 1, 1990 when he left Liberia after years of torture, prison camps and the madness of civil war. Riddled with scars from beatings, torture and gunshot wounds after three escape attempts, Larry finally arrived at a refugee camp from where he was later relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida.
The past eight years have been filled with experiences so new to him that he still marvels over the fact that he is safe. However, his heart still fears for his sister and family that he left behind in Liberia.
In 1980, a military rebellion overturned the Liberian government and from 1989 to 2003 Liberia suffered two civil wars, the First Liberian Civil War (1989-1996), and the Second Liberian Civil War (1999-2003). The wars displaced hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed the country's economy. In 2006, a new administration was established. However, Liberia still copes with increasing challenges, and rebuilding has been slow.
Years of conflict have had devastating consequences for the humanitarian situation in Liberia, currently ranked 174 out of 175 countries by the UN World Human Development Index, which measures health and living conditions. The 14-year span of civil conflict left more than 100,000 people dead –mostly innocent civilians – and hundreds of thousands became refugees or displaced persons throughout the region.
After Larry’s relocation to St. Petersburg, he sought help from various organizations that led him to walk into the American Red Cross St. Petersburg office and request assistance in locating his sister, Ida Josephine Paige. He had no knowledge if she was even alive, let alone where she might be; but on March 30, 2011, Restoring Family Links caseworkers filed his tracing request and the international search began.
This past week, caseworkers delivered exciting news – they had located his sister. Larry was prepared for the worst, “I’m ready for whatever you have to tell me.” Caseworkers Pam Bartley and Margaret Miller couldn’t reach him by phone and decided to deliver the news in person.
Larry braced himself to hear the news from the caseworkers. “We have a letter from your sister for you,” Bartley announced. Larry was overjoyed, jumping in the air and shouting to passersby that his sister was alive.
The brief note began with “my dearest brother.” Ida Paige was located in the same village where they had grown up after losing their mother at an early age. She thought Emmet had died in the war along with a five-year old nephew and their father. Paige excitedly told him of her marriage and her three children and expressed relief at finding him alive.
Larry responded immediately to his sister’s note, but is still wary that it is really her since he has yet to see a photo. “That is when my heart will be full again,” said Larry.
Emmet Larry says that he has two dreams: seeing his sister face-to-face once more and becoming a U.S. citizen. His gratitude to the Red Cross and all the agencies that have assisted in his journey drives him to give back and help others realize their dreams.
American Red Cross caseworkers at local chapters around the U.S. help families locate missing relatives by working with other partners in the global Red Cross network, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and other societies in nearly every country in the world.
Once a family member is found, the Red Cross helps them reconnect through various means, most often through hand-written notes. Messages are generally brief, but the three short words “I am alive” may be all that is needed to ease the minds of distraught relatives half a world away. Red Cross messages can also be exchanged between families and their loved ones in refugee camps and detention centers to allow them to keep in contact and share family news.
This past year, the American Red Cross helped reconnect more than 4,200 families—bridging years of separation to renew critical links between new communities in the U.S. and their families around the world.
In the Tampa Bay area, caseworkers have worked to reconnect more than 30 families, including 14 Holocaust survivors.