Every year on World Refugee Day, June 20, the world honors the courage and resilience of refugees. On this seventh anniversary of the United Nations-designated day, thousands of organizations come together to focus global attention not only on the plight of refugees, but also on the contributions they make in their host communities. Today, the American Red Cross and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world are reaffirming our commitment to assist refugees nearby and from a distance.
Imagine arriving in an unfamiliar place where the landscape, culture and language are all completely foreign. It is not a stop on your vacation route, but your new home. Every year, millions of refugees leave their families and friends, their livelihoods and homelands to seek safety in these unknown places.
“Often volatile situations in their home countries will cause families to separate voluntarily or involuntarily while seeking a safe haven,” said Kathleen Salanik, manager of the international family tracing services for the American Red Cross. “In many cases conflicts continue for decades, leaving refugees forever separated from their loved ones and the lives they once had.”
After drying his eyes, So Chhim looks away to reflect on the recent reunion with his sister in Cambodia after 37 years of war-time separation.
Photo Courtesy of the American Red Cross Greater Long Beach Chapter.
Until recently, So Chhim was one such refugee. Now living in southern California, he fled Cambodia in 1972 after a violent civil war – as a former army soldier he was wanted by the new government. When he and his wife left suddenly to seek refuge in Thailand, So Chhim forfeited any opportunity for future communications with his family still living in Cambodia. As soon as he learned his brothers and their families were executed, So Chhim knew he made the right decision not to put his surviving sister, So Sophan, at risk by contacting her.
“With the Cambodian culture, they learn to bury their feelings,” said Bo Oum, So Chhim’s daughter. “When [he] got to this country, he just (looked forward). He couldn’t think of anything else (in the past).”
His sister, however, couldn’t help but wonder about her brother’s new life – last she heard was he eventually immigrated to the United States. In the summer of 2008, So Sophan visited the Cambodian Red Cross in the hope that its staff could finally find her brother. Around the world, the Red Cross offers a free and confidential service to help reconnect families that have become separated by natural disaster and armed conflict.
Shortly afterward, Sophan’s request to locate her brother passed from the Cambodian Red Cross to the American Red Cross where volunteer caseworker Mike Farrar from the American Red Cross Greater Long Beach Chapter started out on a five month search for So Chhim.
“I physically went to the [locations] we had as known addresses where he had lived in the past seven years,” Farrar said. When that yielded no success, Farrar tried some clever problem-solving.
“I thought the tax assessor’s office would know the names of property owners where So Chhim had lived,” he explained. “I found out (his rented homes) were all owned by one person and got the contact information. I spoke with the owner, but he didn’t know where [So Chhim] (moved to).”
Many people would have given up at this point, exasperated at the lack of leads. But Farrar was undeterred and continued to cull the information he had. He knew, thousands of miles away, So Sophan was desperately seeking reconnection with her brother and depending on him to help.
This spring, Farrer’s determination and sleuthing paid off when he found a relative through a list of So Chhim’s past employers, who provided the sought man’s mobile telephone number, After speaking with him, Farrer learned that So Chhim works across the interstate from the Red Cross offices. Upon meeting, they joked that if the Red Cross had put his name on a balloon So Chhim could have seen it from work and walked over, saving Farrer months of searching.
“My dad was shocked and surprised that his sister was looking for him. He was so thrilled and happy,” Bo Oum shared. “It was definitely an emotional rollercoaster for him, but he is very, very grateful.”
Within days of receiving this news, So Chhim and his family visited their local Red Cross office to learn more about the tracing process. There So Chhim was given the opportunity to write a personal note – internationally referred to as a Red Cross Message – and enclose a photograph of himself for his sister So Sophan. It may take up to several weeks for the message to reach her, but once the Cambodia Red Cross delivers it, the family will learn if she has access to a telephone so that the siblings can finally hear each other’s voices after 37 years.
"It's very important to reconnect," So Chhim said to Farrer via a translator. "Now, even though physically we can't be close, emotionally and spiritually we can be connected."
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 or1-800-257-7575 (Spanish) or online at www.redcross.org.