Missing But Never Forgotten: Red Cross Program Reconnects Families
By Alex Keilty
After retiring, some people play golf and some people play bridge, but Christine Medeiros plays amateur detective.
Christine is a volunteer caseworker and Pacific Division Lead for Restoring Family Links – a program of the Red Cross and Red Crescent networks that reconnects loved ones separated by international crises. Tracking down missing people here and overseas takes lots of old fashioned detective work plus some technical savvy – and Christine has both.
Christine started volunteering for the American Red Cross in 2018. Her first case (before the COVID-19 pandemic) called for her and a teammate to go door to door in San Francisco searching for an elderly gentleman whose last known address was in the Tenderloin neighborhood and whose family in Ukraine had no word from him.
“We found him!” she says. And that’s a pretty typical result for Christine. After working 40 cases locally and consulting on approximately 30 cases in other Red Cross regions around the country, she is confident about her ability to find people whose last known whereabouts is the West Coast of the United States. As she says, “When they are here [on the West Coast], I can usually find them.”
Once COVID-19 hit, all her work went remote and she became “an online detective,” as she calls it. Nowadays she works from home in Marin County at any time of the day, evening or weekend that suits her schedule.
Although it may seem unrelated, her professional background (she retired from the technology industry where she worked in marketing and partnerships) has actually been an asset to her part-time sleuthing work as a Restoring Family Links caseworker. Being comfortable doing computer searches, completing online forms, writing letters, being organized, speaking in front of audiences – these are all skills she honed in her previous work life. She says speaking languages in addition to English can be an asset to the role as well. Caseworkers must also be compassionate and offer comfort to family members who may be distressed.
“It takes a little bit of social work because people can be very upset, even angry,” she says.
Families seeking a missing relative can submit requests to the Restoring Family Links program online or by phone. When a Red Cross caseworker is assigned, they gather as much information as possible about the sought person – including full name, date of birth, names of parents, last known address, last known contact location, past telephone numbers, email addresses, any languages spoken, occupation, religion, and a photograph. This information is uploaded to an international case management system that is accessible to the Red Cross and Red Crescent network worldwide. And then the case will be assigned to another volunteer caseworker who is in the country where the individual is being sought.
So Christine may be gathering information from a family member who lives here, or she may be looking for a missing individual who was last seen in this area.
When the missing person’s last known location is here, Christine will use the information provided by the family overseas to begin a search. She will call all previous phone numbers, send letters to all previous addresses, reach out to former employers, and connect with religious and immigrant groups to see if they know this person. She will also look for Facebook accounts and use Google Earth maps to look for and eliminate addresses and mailboxes. The Red Cross also has access to databases which can provide consumer information and public records. Caseworkers may also do some cultural and historical research to put the missing person’s experience in context and provide more leads as to their current whereabouts.
So who are these missing people? Some cases go back as far as World War II. A majority of the cases come from Central America and Africa, though globally there are 100 armed conflicts and 90 million people displaced due to war, climate change, persecution, violence and poverty.
To protect these vulnerable people, the program is totally confidential and the only people who can initiate requests are family members, not government or other organizations. Once the individual is located by a Red Cross caseworker, they can choose if they want to reconnect with their family or provide no information at all – not even a message that they were found. The American Red Cross respects their privacy.
To access the Restoring Family Links program, the family member must have been separated internationally as a result of conflict, disaster, migration or other humanitarian emergency; must have already tried normal channels of communication to reconnect; be able to provide essential information about the sought person, and must have been in direct contact with the sought person before the crisis occurred.
Some cases are resolved quickly and happily; perhaps an individual in a war zone is able to send word to family overseas, or the person is located through the dogged investigative work of the caseworkers. But sometimes the result is sad news that the person has died or is unable to be found.
“Searches can go on for years,” says Christine. And while all cases are important, some haunt her and can’t be forgotten. Like one case she had years ago where she was seeking a person who had fled from South Vietnam.
“The Canadian Red Cross could not find him, but I still look every once in awhile,” she says. To learn more about the Red Cross Restoring Family Links program visit your local Red Cross chapter, call 844-782-9441 or complete the online form at https://www.redcross.org/about-us/our-work/international-services/reconnecting-families.html.