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Refugees Find Special Purpose Volunteering with the Red Cross
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Abi Weaver, International Services, American Red Cross
June 18, 2010

Each year, on June 20, we honor the thousands of volunteers and organizations that assist refugees worldwide. But rarely do we highlight the selfless contributions of the refugees themselves.

Elmuatz Abdelrahim, American Red Cross volunteer who immigrated from Sudan and now gives back to his new community by responding to house fires and other local emergencies.
Elmuatz Abdelrahim, American Red Cross volunteer who immigrated from Sudan and now gives back to his new community by responding to house fires and other local emergencies.
Photo Courtesy Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the organization mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect and assist refugees worldwide – suggests more than 11 million people will become refugees this year. More than half a million are expected to resettle in the US.

Most will be forced to leave their families behind and rebuild their lives in new communities and unfamiliar cultures.

“During their transition, thousands will choose volunteerism as a way to develop new skills and develop a sense of community,” said Kathleen Salanik, international family tracing manager with the American Red Cross.  “They give back to the same communities that offered them security, friendship and a home upon their arrival to the US. They return hope to families facing similar hardship.”

Many newly resettled refugees donate their time through the Red Cross because of its trusted reputation in their homelands, personal interactions while in overseas refugee camps and family tracing services available in the US. 

“(Refugees) have more trust in us,” said Elmuatz Abdelrahim, a Red Cross volunteer who immigrated from Sudan in May 2001. “In general, the refugee community is mistrustful of the authorities, and someone who speaks the language and looks like them is trusted more. They consider you part of their family.”

Elmuatz saw this firsthand when he was called to a duplex fire on one of Maine’s coldest winter nights. One family was not home during the fire, but arrived shortly after. To his surprise, Elmuatz knew the Sudanese family.

“In their time of devastation, me, someone they know was representing the Red Cross,” he recalled. “My being there was of great comfort to them; I could just see it. The fact that I was representing the Red Cross made them very proud.”

When María Luisa Vigier de Correa first arrived in Miami, after leaving Cuba under refugee status in 1962, she was met with a similar form of support. A group of teenaged volunteers with the American Red Cross served as greeters as families departed the plane. 

“I remember the first thing I got from (the volunteer’s) hands was a box containing toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, bandages, deodorant, soap … I still keep that box as the most valuable treasure that I would ever receive from the Red Cross,” she said. Today, María Luisa serves as a volunteer for the board of directors with the American Red Cross Puerto Rico chapter.

The following American Red Cross volunteers, who first came to the US under refugee status, have similarly powerful stories of connection to the Red Cross mission abroad and in their new communities as well as a commitment to serving other refugees and immigrants.

Bawili Makolo, Democratic Republic of the Congo - Current Location: Twin Cities, MN

Red Cross card from volunteer Bawili Makolo's years of service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Red Cross card from volunteer Bawili Makolo’s years of service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Her Story: In 1996, when tensions from the neighboring Rwandan war and genocide had spilled over into what was then known as Zaire, Bawili and her family literally ran away from their village in South Kivu. Thousands were raped and killed during this time. In the chaos, Bawili was separated from her husband and children. Extremely worried, Bawili returned to her village hoping the violence would calm and her family would reunite safely. What she did not know then was her husband ended up more than 1,000 miles away in the capital city while her daughter and grandson escaped to Tanzania and eventually immigrated to the U.S.

After more than three years without contact, Bawili’s daughter Nathalie sought help from the American Red Cross to find her parents and siblings. Once found, Nathalie helped Bawili relocate to South Africa to escape another rise in violence and eventually enter the US under refugee status in January 2009. Bawili’s husband has joined the family in the US but stays with relatives in Iowa City, Iowa to be closer to his job. Today, Bawili’s other two children remain in South Africa.

How She Helps: For 24 years, Bawili volunteered with local Red Cross groups in Africa, traveling village-to-village during times of violence and peace, educating families about water purification, treating people with illnesses and distributing medications. In rural communities, healthcare was difficult to access and active fighting forced families to rely on the Red Cross for basic medical aid. Today, Bawili applies those skills in an American context, helping to prepare the equipment and materials needed to teach lifesaving classes like CPR and first aid.

 In Her Own Words:

“Being a refugee, we know the Red Cross. We know the whole story. We know about (founder) Henry Dunant. We know the songs and sayings. The Red Cross is our life.”

Hassan Sheleh, Somalia - Current Location: Portland, ME

Hassan Sheleh, American Red Cross volunteer who is originally from Somalia and now helps other immigrants find missing loved ones.
Hassan Sheleh, American Red Cross volunteer who is originally from Somalia and now helps other immigrants find missing loved ones.
Photo Courtesy Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

His Story: After fleeing Somalia at an early age during the country’s civil war, Hassan spent 17 years with more than 300,000 others in Dadaab refugee camp on the Kenya-Somalia border. Because he had received some education, he helped read and translate letters delivered by the Red Cross for families with relatives who fled to Ethiopia and other neighboring countries. While in the camp, he experienced drought, floods and overcrowding.  In May 2007, Hassan and his family immigrated to the US under refugee status with assistance from UNHCR, eventually resettling in the Portland, Maine area. Hassan was not immediately able to find a job or enroll in school so he began training with the Red Cross to help families like his who are separated from their loved ones by violence and disaster. Today, Hassan is enrolled as a student at Central Maine Community College with hopes to one day become a doctor as well as to visit Somalia to see where his family comes from.

How He Helps: As a volunteer caseworker with the American Red Cross, Hassan helps find missing people and reestablish communications through the exchange of letters, telephone calls and video messages. Recently, Hassan shared his story with a group of refugee caseworkers attending the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s annual conference, highlighting the social value of volunteerism for refugees and other immigrants, especially for youth who often struggle to adjust and connect with their new communities. 

Aymee Tokmakci, Cuba - Current Location: Charleston, SC

Cuban refugee Aymee Tokmakci, in the back wearing an apron, stands proudly with her fellow American Red Cross volunteers who serve US military families.
Cuban refugee Aymee Tokmakci, in the back wearing an apron, stands proudly with her fellow American Red Cross volunteers who serve US military families.
Her Story: In July 1962, Aymee’s family was notified that they could leave Cuba under refugee status for the US. Unfortunately, the government said they could take no personal belongings and had to vacate their home immediately. For the next few months, they stayed with relatives in Havana. When their departure date came in September 1962, they could take only one set of clothes – those they were wearing at the time. Their money, jewelry, photographs were confiscated at the airport. Just as their plane departed for Miami, the American blockade began. They eventually resettled in Puerto Rico, where Aymee who was four-years-old at the time, quickly adjusted to her new life. Her parents, on the other hand, were devastated by the fact that they would never see their parents or siblings in Cuba again. Aymee also remembers financial struggles that forced her family to pick through people’s trash to find used furniture and other items of use. Eventually, her father opened a business that supported her family until he passed away when Aymee was 16 years old. Aymee later relocated to pursue a college education and family life. Today, she lives in South Carolina with her husband and two children.

How She Helps: Although she supported blood drives and donated to charities for much of her adult life, Aymee didn’t become a volunteer until after seeing the immense need that Hurricane Katrina created in 2005. Today, she volunteers with the American Red Cross Service to Armed Forces program, helping to prepare military families for deployment and supporting community activities for active duty military, veterans and their families. Recently, she also assisted people as they were repatriated following Haiti’s devastating earthquake. As an immigrant, she could relate to their anxiety and uncertain future. Speaking to a Haitian American man in French, she learned that he lost his wife in the earthquake and was left to care for their infant daughter alone. She was able to supply him with formula, clothes and transportation assistance so he could reconnect with relatives in the US, who could help care for him and the child.

In her own words:
“I think that a diverse volunteer base is a realistic reflection of the existing diversity in today’s world. I’m an American citizen, born in Cuba (and) of Lebanese descent. I speak French, Italian, Spanish and Turkish. Diverse volunteers through their different cultural insights and knowledge of cultural nuances bring to their Red Cross volunteer service a perspective second to none.”

Charles Song, Cambodia - Current Location: Long Beach, CA

His Story: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cambodia was briefly invaded during the Vietnam Conflict. Charles’s family village was bombed repeatedly. No matter where they traveled, including the capital city of Phnom Penh, the violence followed. In 1972, Charles was injured when a grenade exploded injuring his abdomen. Left to die, a Red Cross nurse found him and helped him obtain a lifesaving surgery. A few years later during the country’s genocide, millions of people, including his oldest brother and many of his aunts and uncles, were killed. In fear, Charles and his surviving family members escaped to a refugee camp on the border and later another in Thailand. In June 1983, Charles immigrated to the US under refugee status where he initially experienced hardship but eventually learned English and earned a high school diploma. Today, he is married and the father of two children. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedies, Charles reconnected with the Red Cross and began volunteering.

How He Helps: As a volunteer, Charles trained as an instructor and regularly teaches other Cambodians, mostly seniors living in California, CPR and first aid as well as how to prepare for an earthquake. Because of this training, Charles was able to save his wife’s life with CPR – an action that warranted a “Hometown Hero” award from the American Red Cross. Charles also serves on the local chapter’s board of directors, helps translate for the Khmer-speaking population in his area and fundraises following natural disasters that strike at home and abroad, including the recent earthquake in Haiti.

In His Own Words:
“The Red Cross is one the leading organizations, among many in the world, that provide food, shelter and medicine to not only refugees, but (others) in desperate need. Because of that, many people…are saved every day.”

Dijana Dukic, Bosnia - Current Location: Utica, NY

Her Story: When the Bosnian war and genocide escalated in 1994 – the summer before the well-known Srebrenica Massacre – five-year-old Dijana and her mother left their farm and sought refuge in camps throughout Croatia. For three years, they survived on little food, water and comfort. The winters were cold, the bathrooms were located outdoors and there were no showers available. She remembers seeing the Red Cross and UN agencies in these camps, providing food, clothes, water, medicine as well as delivering family news. Her father, a member of the Bosnian army, was detained as a prisoner of war and utilized the Red Cross to send messages back and forth with his family in the refugee camp. On her eighth birthday in September 1996 Dijana and her mother arrived in the US under refugee status. As a young girl, she enjoyed an American education and is now studying at Utica College.

How She Helps: Dijana first became interested in volunteering when she joined a friend for an American Red Cross training class. Soon afterward, she secured an academic internship with the local chapter which eventually evolved into an ongoing volunteer role as a caseworker. Dijana helps find people missing following international war and disaster and reconnect their families. She also gives presentations with other refugees to students, educating them about humanitarian crises around the world and services available in the US. She was always hesitant to share her family’s experience with others until she co-presented and connected with two “Lost Boys” from Sudan at a local high school, who faced similar hardships in their war-torn country and during the resettlement process. Today, she shares her story with pride, knowing it will help others coping with the cultural adjustments as well as help the communities that receive refugees. Dijana is also very active in campus groups, volunteering her story to prevent genocide and promote peace.

To learn more about how the American Red Cross helps refugees in conflict situations and in the US, visit redcross.org/international. Additionally, visit the website’s volunteer section to learn more about the opportunities described here.


About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation's blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.

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