“I want to get to know people on a personal level, and I want to make sure that the Red Cross can help them,” said José Rodriquez, who serves as a Director with the American Red Cross in Arizona and New Mexico.
At the Fort Bliss Doña Ana Range Complex in Chaparral, New Mexico, Rodriquez spends his days manning the American Red Cross Communication Center. At the center, evacuees can reconnect with their loved ones through the Restoring Family Links (RFL) program.
As a Navy veteran, Rodriquez says that helping Afghan evacuees resonates deeply with him. “Many of us connected to the U.S. military worked alongside the people of Afghanistan for two decades. Helping them connect during this challenging time is a powerful thing,” he said.
At the center, Rodriquez and his cadre of Red Cross volunteers, many of whom are veterans, provide the evacuees with tablets for them to communicate via social media or for children to play games and chargers for their phones. On average, 200 to 250 people a day visit the center. “Our goal is to offer a way for the guests to make phone calls to their family members back in Afghanistan,” he said.
CHANGING NEEDS AND ROLES Immediately following the evacuation of Afghan refugees, the American Red Cross was there to provide comfort, care and a level of normalcy for families dealing with unimaginable upheaval. Nearly 800 volunteers provided evacuees with 1.9 million relief items — including comfort kits, personal hygiene items, towels, blankets, hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, thermometers, baby bottles, portable cribs and stuffed animals.
Today, Red Cross teams continue to aid evacuees through the RFL program, a global service that connects 7,000 families separated by conflict each year. Ensuring that evacuees were enrolled into the program as quickly as possible was a top priority. To facilitate this process, the American Red Cross and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) collaborated to develop an iPad rapid registration tool to make it easier for evacuees to immediately open a family tracing request.
While working with evacuees, caseworkers discovered that many families became separated during the evacuation and arrived in the United States separately, unable to communicate. Rather than only focus on international searches as it was originally designed to do, the program retooled its offerings to include domestic missing person searches. This change required coordination between other agencies working on the military bases, such as the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the State Department.
PROVIDING A PERSONAL TOUCH Back at Doña Ana Range, Red Cross volunteer and Army veteran Dawn Charleswell also works at the call center. Most days, she’s aided by an Afghan evacuee who volunteers his time at the tent. “He’s so kind. He comes in each day and helps us check guests in so that they can call back home.”
With the help of evacuees, both Charleswell and Rodriquez have picked up a few greetings and expressions in Dari and Pashto, primary languages spoken in Afghanistan. “I’ve got ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ down but am working on more phrases,’” said Rodriquez with a smile.
For many Red Crossers, the personal interaction with those who visit the call center makes all the difference. “I like to sit down and talk with people. I ask them about their culture, their food and everything else. I like to find out what someone did for a living in Afghanistan. So many people have these incredible backgrounds and they want to share their story, want to talk,” Rodriquez said.
HEARING A FAMILIAR VOICE Army Spouse Sara Andrews lives in the El Paso area and is a volunteer with the Red Cross. Today she’s aiding a young woman who is trying to track down relatives in Afghanistan. After multiple attempts, they don’t have success. “Some days are better than others,” she said.
Rodriguez echoes Andrews by sharing that at the call center the emotions can be high and low. Some days there are tears of happiness and somedays there’s sadness when an evacuee learns of the loss of a loved one.
“We’ve had several evacuees conduct job interviews at the center and that is such a great thing. They are ready to start their new lives and it is great that the Red Cross can help in that process,” he said. What Rodriquez most enjoys is seeing the look on a guest’s face when they connect with a loved one and hear a familiar voice on the other end of the call. “It really makes all the difference,” he said.