The last time Tenneh Gbondo, 45, saw her husband Moses and youngest son Umaru was in 1994 when their city of Gbarnga was attacked by rebel forces in a war that raged in Liberia from 1989 to 1996 and claimed more than 200,000 lives. Tenneh, who was pregnant at the time, managed to flee the fighting with her other two children, son Amos and daughter Saitta. "We ran from bush to bush to bush hiding from the rebels for two months," she said.
The American Red Cross helped Tenneh Gbondo find her family after the chaos of the Liberian civil war. She is pictured with her grandson.
That was only the beginning of her personal ordeal that has lasted more than 14 years. After fleeing her home she suffered a brutal attack by rebels who slashed her throat and left her for dead along the side of a road. She survived and then decided to leave her children with her niece so that she would travel to the Ivory Coast in hopes of finding Moses and Umaru. No such luck. But she gave birth to another son, Dali. Then fighting broke out in that region and Dali's life would be claimed by a stray bullet when he was 7 years old.
Tenneh sought shelter at the Camp Laine refugee camp in March 2003 where she remained for another 2 years. In 2004, 10 years after the first attack her family suffered, she learned her niece, Amos and Saitta were still alive.
While in Camp Laine, Tenneh was interviewed by a United Nations representative for the purpose of being sent to the United States. She was approved for refugee status but at that time her children and her niece were not. Once again she had to leave her family behind while they awaited a decision on their interviews.
She settled in San Jose, California. That's when she called the local chapter of the American Red Cross and filed a family tracing request. In 2005 her prayers were answered. The Red Cross located Moses and Umaru living in a Guinea refugee camp with a step-daughter Bindu. They talked by cell phone. "I was so happy to hear he was alive. I asked him a lot of questions and I told him I thought he was dead," she said. "All those years he thought I was dead, too."
Elena Grover was the case worker who first opened Tenneh's request. "Despite her incredible struggles, Tenneh never gave up hope of getting back in touch with her family. I admire her and all our other clients who remain hopeful that they will find their relatives," Grover said.
In March 2007, Tenneh received a call that Amos, now 24 years old, Saitta, 28 and Saitta's son Blessing as well as her niece Mamie and her two daughters Kou and Rhoda had received permission to enter the United States. They joined her in San Jose later that month.
"Seeing Tenneh reunited with members of her family last year at the Mineta San Jose International Airport was a truly inspiring moment. It is personally rewarding to see a family that has been through so much during their lives as refugees made whole again," said Jose Posadas of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the ARC. Now, a year later, Tenneh feels grateful for being reunited with most of her family but her dream won't full be realized until Moses, Umaru and Bindu can also join her. But for now, they talk frequently on the cell phone and share photographs through the mail. "I want them here too so we can all be happy," she added.
Background on Restoring Family Links
Purpose of RESTORING FAMILY LINKS
The American Red Cross, as a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, provides assistance to families separated by armed conflict, disaster, or humanitarian emergencies. The American Red Cross can help to:
- Locate family members separated by war, internal conflict, or humanitarian emergencies.
- Restore family communications across international borders.
- Reunite family members when possible.
- Provide additional family linking services that are within the scope of the American Red Cross' humanitarian mission.
The American Red Cross fulfills this mission through its International Family Tracing Services unit at national headquarters and the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center at the Central Maryland Chapter in Baltimore, Maryland, through chapters, and through offices located on United States military installations overseas.
International Services of the Red Cross
International Family Tracing Services, which are a Core requirement for all chapters, include the following:
- Tracing and Location Services
- Red Cross Messages
- Health and Welfare Inquiries
- Disaster Welfare Inquiries
- International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Travel Documents
- Family Reunification
- Information and Referral Services
How RESTORING FAMILY LINKS works
The term "tracing" is often used to describe all the Restoring Family Links services of the Red Cross. Restoring Family Links services are available to those who live in United States communities but are separated from family members abroad due to armed conflict or natural disaster in their native countries.
American Red Cross chapters consisting of staff and volunteers work to restore family links between their clients in local communities and family members in other countries. Tracing requests may be received from residents in the United States communities for relatives in foreign countries. Requests also come from persons overseas through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other national Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross provides relief to victims of disasters at home and abroad, collects and distributes nearly half of the nation's blood supply, teaches lifesaving skills, and supports military members and families. The American Red Cross, a charity and not a government agency, depends on voluntary contributions of time, money and blood to perform its humanitarian mission.