On May 8, the American Red Cross will join with the other 185 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from around the globe to celebrate World Red Cross Red Crescent Day. The following story is part of a series, leading up to the observance and demonstrating the connection between your local American Red Cross chapter and the humanitarian work being done overseas by the American Red Cross, other national societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Byambi Lukata, then serving as Tanzanian Red Cross volunteer, greets mothers and children living in a refugee camp. Little did he know that he would eventually need the help of the Red Cross to find his missing family.
Photo Credit: Lukata Family
Byambi Lukata is Burundian by heritage, but is more Texan by experience.
His parents were among those expelled from the small, Sub-Sahara African country in 1972 during its civil war. Lukata was later born in a refugee camp in Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until recently, he lived most of his thirty years in another refugee camp in Tanzania, and has never actually visited Burundi.
“It was a difficult life; I never knew home,” Lukata confessed. “It is too painful to discuss, even today.”
Nearly two years ago, Lukata, his wife, Neonia, and their three children moved from Tanzania to Texas as part of a government-sponsored, refugee resettlement program that assists victims of ethnic warfare in Burundi. Though grateful to finally have a safe and permanent home, Lukata, sadly, had to leave behind his father and extended family, most of who were eventually repatriated back to Burundi.
At the time, Lukata did not know where he would be placed through the resettlement program, so he could not keep his extended family informed of his well-being and whereabouts. Likewise, his father did not have access to telephone, postal or Internet services at the refugee camp in which he lived. The family truly had no way to stay in touch after the Lukatas left Africa and soon lost all contact.
After six months of unanswered questions and painful separation, Lukata’s uncle stopped a Tanzanian Red Cross volunteer, who was visiting his refugee camp, and asked for help to find his nephew in the United States.
His uncle knew the value of utilizing the worldwide Red Cross Message program because Lukata had actually served as a Red Cross volunteer in the camp before moving to the United States. It was his last hope.
“The family messages transmitted by the Red Cross can be very brief, but the three short words ‘I am alive’ may be all that is needed to ease the minds of distraught loved ones half a world away,” explained Kathleen Salanik, manager of family tracing with the American Red Cross. “Their homeland may be deeply entrenched in civil war, and a simple, personal note gives loved ones in the United States tremendous peace of mind.”
The uncle wrote a hand-written message to Lukata with the hope that somehow the Red Cross would be able to deliver it despite not knowing where his nephew now lived. The message contained news about major life events, including births and deaths, as well as the families’ plans for the near future.
These family messages are used by the Red Cross to re-establish communication between prisoners of war, political detainees, refugees and other civilian victims of armed conflict and their family members when normal communications are not available. This service is made possible by cooperation and resource-sharing between the American Red Cross, the other 185 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In the United States, local American Red Cross volunteers receive messages written in other parts of the world and deliver them to the senders’ family members living in their communities. In this case, Sarah Howell, a refugee specialist with American Red Cross Greater Houston Area Chapter, researched local directories and asked the local resettlement groups to help find Lukata in her community.
Now, more than a year since their first Red Cross Message arrived, the Lukatas are able to keep in regular contact with extended family in Africa with the help of the American Red Cross. They have reestablished communications with Lukata’s father, and several of their siblings and cousins, both in Tanzania and Burundi.
"I feel so happy whenever I get messages from (my family),” Lukata shared. “When I read them, I have a big smile on my face; it’s like I can see them in the messages."
Sarah Howell (left), a refugee specialist with the American Red Cross Greater Houston Area Chapter, spends time with her first international family tracing clients – Byambi Lukata, his son Shabani and wife Neonia – during a World Refugee Day celebration last year.
Photo Credit: Sarah Howell, American Red Cross
Often written in the native language and accompanied by family photographs, Red Cross Messages help fill the void left by their absence and offer families a way to feel connected to their loved ones oceans apart. Using Red Cross messages, the Lukatas have received photos of siblings’ weddings and newborns, and have shared stories of their new lives in America.
In addition to restoring contact with their family overseas, the Lukatas have looked to the American Red Cross to assist in their resettlement, including helping them access government assistance, opening a bank account and navigating the local transit system. With gratitude, the Lukatas are honoring Howell by naming their next child, who is due in July, after her.
“I’ve gotten to know the family very well, and it’s rewarding to see them settle into their lives (in the United States),” she added. “And I suspect our initial introduction through Red Cross Messages will lead to a lasting friendship.”
In addition to showing their gratitude for Howell and the American Red Cross in such a personal way, Lukata has recently become a volunteer at his local chapter, where he hopes to help others reconnect with separated loved ones and ease their suffering. As international and internal conflicts continue to persist around the world, families will continue to rely on volunteers like Lukata and the one his uncle reached out to in Tanzania.
If you have been separated from your immediate family due to armed conflict or natural disaster, please contact your local American Red Cross Chapter to inquire about the Restoring Family Links program. Currently, the Red Cross supports messaging and tracing programs in more than 18 conflict-affected countries. Additionally, if you would like to volunteer as an interpreter or caseworker in your local community, learn more at www.redcross.org/familylinks.
You can help the victims of countless crises around the world each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, which will provide immediate relief and long-term support through supplies, technical assistance and other support to help those in need. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster, please do so at the time of your donation by mailing your donation with the designation to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243 , Washington, D.C. 20013 or to your local American Red Cross chapter. Donations to the International Response Fund can be made by phone at 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish) or online at www.redcross.org.