Red Cross helps refugees find lost family membersby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Saturday is World Refugee Day. The United Nations established the day to honor the millions of people forced from their homes by conflicts around the globe.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services estimates that more than 70,000 refugees live in Minnesota -- after fleeing conflicts or persecution in places including Somalia, Laos and Bosnia.
In addition to forcing people from their homes, the conflicts also separate parents from children, brothers from sisters and husbands from wives. Those family members can sometimes find each other with the help of the Red Cross.
Senada Demir, her husband and her children moved 17 times in five years to escape wartime violence in Bosnia. They hid in basements and lived in refugee camps. They all survived together, but by the time the war was dying down, they were separated from the rest of their family.
"I lost my mother -- she was five years missing -- and my husband's brother, his wife and his children," Demir said.
She contacted the Red Cross, and it searched all the refugee camps in the war-torn country.
"Maybe one year later we have information," Demir said. "Everybody was OK. This was [the] happiest day in my life."
But more than a decade later, Demir is still searching for her brother. The last time she saw him was in 1993, and he was in the hospital.
"And I go see him, and I talk to him," she said. "I give him [a] coat, and I bring food. That was for maybe seven days we saw each other and then no more. He disappeared."
Demir lives in St. Louis Park now. She continues to search for her brother through the Twin Cities area chapter of the American Red Cross. Mike Booth, the social services coordinator there, says he handles about 30 new family tracing cases a year.
"Sometimes it can be fairly easy," Booth said. "But sometimes it takes a while to find people. It can take many years to finally locate people when they've been displaced by a conflict that moves thousands of people out of their normal homeland."
It's a low-tech process. Refugees fill out a simple one-page form describing their missing relative. The form then gets circulated through refugee and prisoner-of-war camps around the world in the 190 countries where the Red Cross and Red Crescent have a presence.
Booth said the best part of his job is putting a refugee in touch with a missing relative. But he's also had to deliver the news that a loved one has died.
"Like delivering happy news, it's a humbling experience," Booth said. "But you learn something about people and about being a human being by watching them bear up under the news of a death."
For Senada Demir, the hardest part is not knowing. One of her brother's friends told her he died fighting for the Serbian army, but she still hopes the Red Cross will find out for sure.
"I'm going to still look for him, and I can look for him forever, until I find his bones, and I need to make my mother happy," Demir said. "I wish I can make my mother happy before she dies."
Booth estimates about half the cases he sees get resolved within a year. For the other half, they just keep looking.
Most of the family tracing requests the Twin Cities Red Cross sees are from the Somali community. But International Committee of the Red Cross has open tracing cases dating back to the Second World War.
- Morning Edition, 06/19/2009, 6:50 a.m.