Compassion and pragmatic action: the restoring family links program by Christa Charbonneau Kuntzelman

Restoring_family_links_LibyaRestoring Family Links, Libya (ICRC)

CHRISTA CHARBONNEAU KUNTZELMAN is currently an MA candidate in International Public Service at DePaul University, and will begin a PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University in autumn 2015. In both her education and her personal life, Christa has devoted herself to understanding the intricacies of the lived experience of forced displacement, and the resiliency of the displaced. She has served as the lead volunteer caseworker for the Restoring Family Links Program of the American Red Cross in Chicago for almost three years.


Migration and the Restoring Family Links Program

Peace comes from being able to contribute the best that we have, and all that we are, toward creating a world that supports everyone. But it is also securing the space for others to contribute the best that they have and all that they are.
– Hafsat Abiola

The year 2014 was replete with examples of forced migration, massive internal displacement, and other large migrant movements. Whether it was children from Latin America fleeing violence and seeking safe haven in the United States, populations in Iraq, Syria and South Sudan fleeing war, or even individuals and families leaving their homes in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to avoid the Ebola epidemic, it is clear that tremendous amounts of people are on the move. The United Nations and its subsidiaries like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) substantiate that this type of movement is not new, even if the present numbers seem shockingly high.

As a caseworker with the Restoring Family Links Program (RFL) of the American Red Cross, I am privileged to interact with persons who have been directly affected by forced displacement, as well as those who have migrated voluntarily. While many local and international organizations respond to displacement by caring for immediate human needs and the survival of the persons involved, the RFL Program is markedly different. Life-sustaining interventions that provide food, water, proper shelter and healthcare are undeniably vital services, but there are still unmet needs. RFL seeks to restore communication between separated family members because we realize that when this communication stalls, people lose access to those who provide them with emotional and psychological support. These relationships give life meaning and depth. As caseworkers, we believe that we provide hope, empathy and compassion, coupled with pragmatic action.

RFL is a multi-faceted program that is committed to assisting all families in their pursuit to learn the fate of their loved ones, and to restore communication between survivors. The Red Cross/Red Crescent movement[1] has a national chapter in almost every nation, and therefore the organization has unique capacity to facilitate family tracing requests throughout most of the world. In the United States, this includes helping those in the U.S. look for family members abroad, and helping those abroad search for family members believed to be in the U.S. Family tracing cases can be opened in almost any nation in the world. The RFL Program has trained caseworkers to conduct interviews and searches, supported by a vast network of advocates and outreach associates that promote and educate other NGO partners and the general public on these efforts.[2] The outreach teams within the RFL program are instrumental to advancing the work and the mission.

Throughout my almost three years as a caseworker, many assumptions that I had about migrants and the migrant experience have been fundamentally challenged, expanded, and in some cases, completely shattered. In the media, one often hears heartbreaking stories of violence and war, but we also hear the condemnation of immigrants, including efforts to close borders and restrict entry. Instead of focusing on the individual migrant, we hear that immigrants are criminals that have crossed a border without the proper documents. In American society, we are largely not taught about the interrelated nature of international politics, history, economic development and other factors that have shaped the world as we see it today. Taken together, this reaffirms a false notion that all migration is simple, and that there is an equitable and fair legal process for anyone that wishes to come to the United States. However, I know that this is simply not true. The truth is that the more deeply I become involved in case work, the more I find that migration narratives are always more complex than I could have imagined.

De-Politicizing Migration

A primary reason that I love the RFL Program is because I am allowed to depoliticize migration issues in a legal sense. I do not have to inquire about the residence status of my clients. I do not have to probe for the deeply personal and often traumatizing reasons that they left their country, although I often become privy to these details. I do not have to decide if they are “deserving” of service, because everyone should be able to contact loved ones and family. Rather, I am able to focus solely on the person that is in front of me. I can see the person for who he or she is, an individual like me and like you.

We can dissect push and pull factors, we can argue about “hot button issues,” and we can debate who is a migrant and who is a refugee. We can even heatedly discuss what we “owe” to migrant individuals and whether we should feel legal, moral, ethical or other obligations to do or give anything. However, I believe there is a shallowness to these arguments when they distract us from the underlying and innate human desire to leave a location where one cannot support themselves or their family and seek improved living conditions.

Further, arguments about legal terms often serve as mechanisms of cultural violence. By this I mean that we may use these labels to differentiate certain individuals from ourselves, and often do so with the implication that our humanity is of a higher status. The definition of a legal refugee is someone that was forced to leave his or her residence because of persecution or fear of persecution, but we often forget that the way that persecution is legally defined is very narrow. State and international protection of those in need fails often, whether due to a lack of desire or ability.

The RFL Program allows for a sort of re-humanization of clients. I emphasize that it is a “sort of” process, because anyone who approaches the Red Cross for help in locating a family member has never ceased to be human. However, the recognition of their expressed wishes, hopes, and fears regarding their family allows for a new expression of their humanity, and a reclaiming of their own individual agency. It is a reminder that individuals may be asking for a form of help, but that they are also actors.                         .

Re-conceptualizing Agency

It is the client who contacts the caseworker to initiate a family tracing request, and the decision to initiate this request can be a difficult decision for individuals that have lost contact with loved ones.  Some clients have expressed fears that the Red Cross will disclose their uncertain or undocumented legal status to authorities. As caseworkers, we have to build trust with the client so they understand that the Red Cross does not share information with the government, and that his or her records with us are confidential.

Beyond this concern, the choice to seek family tracing is an act of agency because to ask for reconnection is also an acknowledgment that the search may be unsuccessful, or that the seeker may encounter the unspeakable news that their family member has perished. These are not easy choices, especially when the inquirer knows it could take months, or even years, to locate those that are sought, if they are found at all.

An additional way that working with the RFL has helped me to re-conceptualize the agency of migrants is that refugees, migrants, and other displaced persons often do not use our program as the first attempt to find a family member. Many come and share how they’ve contacted fellow members of the refugee and diaspora communities, asking if anyone still has relatives or friends in the areas where they are searching for family members. They have checked the Internet, Facebook, social media, and have reached out to the UNHCR, to schools and religious institutions within their home communities. They have tried to leverage all connections and avenues, and are persistent in their search. Sometimes these channels are faster than the official Red Cross search attempts. However, when all other avenues have been exhausted, the role of the Red Cross in the search is crucial. Truthfully, it does not matter who is ultimately responsible for reconnecting a family—it is the connection itself that matters most. My role as a caseworker is ultimately to encourage and further this empowering search, but it is the client that has initiated and continues the process.

As a result of my work, I have reassessed the relational dynamic between myself and the ‘clients’. We are all actors in the progress. My role is not what I had envisioned. I do not “give” anyone anything. I am not in a position of authority or hierarchy, but in our equal relationship, I am a facilitator in helping the inquirer to advance what he or she would like to do. I believe that this realization is beneficial to all practitioners and non-practitioners alike. We are all challenged to reassess the role we play, and what our relationship is to the communities that we serve. It is not enough to understand that we are a helper and facilitator; we must also understand that the relationship is not passive. The other person brings much to the table, and it is their actions that allow us, as caseworkers, to have a solid footing with which to move forward.

Methodology of Work and Obstacles to Reunification

To truly form an equal partnership means that we need to know the needs within our city and among our clients. Caseworkers, outreach workers, refugees, diaspora, migrants, and all others working through the RFL Program are concerned stakeholders, and we work together as a unified team. I am very proud of this.

It is also important to note that when we receive international requests to search for a person in Chicago (the branch at which I work), we use similar channels that the inquirers themselves have used. Restoring Family Links outreach team members work tirelessly to establish connections to international communities in our city. By reaching out to non-profits, student groups and religious institutions that serve immigrant and refugee populations, we are building long-lasting relationships that will ensure those we seek to assist have both knowledge about and access to our services. In these ways, we try to anticipate the needs of communities and make sure we are available to respond whenever there is a need.

Despite the best efforts of our clients to provide the most complete and helpful information that is needed to find their family members, the work is often slowed and complicated by factors outside of our control.

In some cases, the ability to begin or continue a search is restricted by the reduced capacity of other national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies. Although the family tracing services is a mandatory service for all national societies, there simply may not be the human or other resources that are needed to accept new cases, or to handle the volume of existing tracing requests.

Sometimes work cannot proceed because the risks of physical harm to the Red Cross/Crescent volunteer or staff is elevated. For example, with the rapid spread of Ebola in several Western African nations, family tracing work was temporarily halted. We do not know and cannot advise when work will resume in these situations; this is further difficult news to deliver. When a caseworker cannot travel to a community, it is difficult to conduct the thorough search that is required. In some instances, this obstacle can be mitigated through utilizing technology (phone, email, etc). Even in our modern technological world, though, there are many areas that do not have stable Internet access, or where families have never owned a home phone. Furthermore, communication systems are often disrupted during conflict. Phone lines and power plants may be rendered unusable due to fighting.

The work of family reunification can also be limited because of public perception. With the recent rise of unaccompanied immigrant children in the United States, I have been shocked to see the reactions against the individuals and organizations seeking services and aid on behalf of these young people. Many have expressed outrage at “rewarding lawbreakers” and claimed that groups like the Red Cross, through its family reconnection services, are working to encourage migrants to come to the U.S. without documentation. This is a prime example of how, despite our efforts to depoliticize an issue and solely respond to a humanitarian need, we are always affected by politics.

Family Reunification: A Common Humanity

In sum, it is not just who is or who is not a refugee, or who has or does not have legal documentation. I believe this work is about family and relationships and holding each other to mutual accountability that when one has suffered, we can all contribute to the amelioration of that suffering.  It is quite unlikely that I myself will become stateless, internally or externally displaced, or that I will need to migrate voluntarily to another nation to sustain my or my family’s livelihood. Even so, I am unable to distinguish a humanitarian difference between those who have migrated and those who are fortunate enough to be settled and secured in regard to the importance of family reunification.

In writing this practitioner report, my goals are not to pass judgment upon anyone who may feel politically different than I do. Rather, my goal is to challenge us all to re-think the degree to which categories of migration matter when seeking to reunify families. I challenge us to find commonality in the humanity that surrounds us. Even if one does not feel that another person is due the legal right to remain in a country, perhaps we can universally declare that everyone should be able to speak to a family member, a close friend or a loved one. There is not any situation I can envision where one should be denied this. Restoring Family Links is a vehicle to express this common humanity.

While practitioners with more skills, expertise, and experience than I are working on the bigger picture to promote stability and end displacement, the rest of us can continue by responding to the basic needs that present all around us. In offering a service to another, one is not encouraging any type of behavior other than a compassionate acknowledgement of basic human needs.


[1] The word movement is a piece of internal terminology and refers to the collective Red Cross/ Red Crescent societies.

[2] In addition to family tracing services, the Restoring Family Links Program also offers a diverse range of services, including assistance in obtaining certificates of detention, Holocaust and World War II documentation, and family records relating to the Bosnian Crisis, among others.