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Beyond Jargon: Reconnecting Families Separated by War

22 Mar 2021
By Fatima Elmasri
Benghazi. Patrizia Danzi, directrice régionale du CICR pour l'Afrique, dans la ville en ruine.
Benghazi. Patrizia Danzi, ICRC regional director for Africa, amid the ruins of the city. Source: International Committee of the Red Cross.

In Libya, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works to help families find loved ones missing due to conflict as part of its Restoring Family Links program. One ICRC humanitarian worker shares her experience.

As humanitarian workers helping reconnect families separated by conflict, the ICRC use jargon like tracing, “re-establishing and maintaining family contact,” family reunification, transfer of documents, and exchange of oral or Red Cross Messages. The people who benefit from these services are often called beneficiaries who have been separated from their loved ones due to conflict, natural disaster, or migration. There is a constant grind, hum, and creak of these terms that can be easily evaluated, measured, tested, and finally reported as yearly statistics.

The ICRC succeeds in reporting using these facts and figures, which are harnessed and sculpted to calculated perfection. But in these rows and columns of numbers, the soul of restoring these family links is never reported. The soul is embodied by the immeasurable love that drives people to search for their missing loved ones. It is the endless will and power that infuses people with the hope of being reunited. In numbers, for the ICRC in Libya alone, there are 1600 accounts of missing people. Behind that number are thousands of fathers, mothers, and children who are anxious for news. If love is said to be a verb, then the actions of families of people who are missing is its articulation.

If love is deemed as courage, Laila*, a little five-year-old, held a lot of courage in her heart. On the journey to be reunited with her family abroad, which was several days long, Leila did not complain and did not look back. She understood that her grandfather was looking forward to meeting her. Although she had never met him, she had spoken to him several times through ICRC-facilitated video calls. She also spoke fondly of her mother and imagined her presence. Leila had been unaccompanied since the age of two, after losing her parents in situations of conflict in Libya, but she understood that love exists and that it was waiting for her.

Another story comes from Anita, who was separated from her husband, Luca, for four years. His family reunification was recognised by her country of asylum in Europe, but the deadline to pick up his residence permit from the embassy in Cairo had expired several times because Luca did not have travel documents in Libya, nor access to consular services to allow him to be reunited with her. Anita and Luca both fled war and were separated by three thousand miles. Both had very little means except their love and perseverance. Luca needed two different visas to get from Libya to Egypt to do his biometrics and be reunited with Anita in Europe. Despite all the obstacles, Anita believed that they could be reunited. She went from one INGO to another to find a solution, which she eventually did.

In another example, one could observe Randa, a young girl going to university in Libya. She wrote to her father, who was detained abroad, through the ICRC Red Cross Message service to ask for his opinion. She knew he would respond either with well-thought-out advice, or with neatly drawn flowers as he had over the past few years. Another detainee would not fail to take this opportunity to console her mother in their separation, reminding her that when they are praying, their souls are connected.

When we struggle to make sense of tragedy and despair in situations of conflict and migration, we find the answer striving against any measure of calculation, beyond the comfort zone of rationality. We find it with an old woman carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, knocking on our door to ask if the ICRC has any news about her missing son. We find it with a wife seeking updates about the search for the body of her deceased husband, knowing they will never meet again.

Since 2018, the ICRC in Libya has helped to reunite 23 people with their families inside Libya and abroad. In total, 1000 Red Cross and oral messages were exchanged between civilians and detainees, and 1100 phone and video calls facilitated.

The ICRC is an impartial, neutral, and independent organisation created in 1863 to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to promote the laws that protect victims of war. It is the founding member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement restoring family links network is comprised of 191 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world, the ICRC, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies working together to bring answers to people who have lost contact with their family members due to conflict, natural disaster, or migration.

*names have been changed.

This article is part of the “Gender & Humanitarian Action” series run by the International Committee of the Red Cross in partnership with Australian Outlook.

Fatima Elmasri is an ICRC Restoring Family Links Delegate working in Libya.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.