By Kate Lyons
Six months after he arrived in the UK, Hassan’s calls to his family started going unanswered. He would send WhatsApp messages to his wife and children, but the blue double tick sign for message read did not appear. From April 2016 until January 2017, nothing.
“No answer, I have stress,” says Hassan in the fledgling English he has been learning since his arrival in the country two years ago.
Hassan and Mariam (not their real names) fled Yemen with their four children in September 2015 when Houthi rebels tried to abduct their 17-year-old son and force him to fight for them.
They spent everything they had to pay a smuggler to get Hassan to safety. The plan was for the rest of the family to join him later. But after he arrived in the UK, he lost contact with them.
Enter the Red Cross. Hassan contacted its international family tracing (IFT) unit in Birmingham. He gave a detailed statement, including information about the camp in Djibouti where his family had stayed and rumours he had heard about where they might have moved to.
Four days later, Hassan’s Red Cross caseworker, James Simmonds – “Mr James, I love this man,” says Hassan – contacted him with good news.
“I was excited, crying,” Hassan recalls. “[Simmonds] says: ‘I found your family in Marrakech, here is a contact number.’ He gives me his phone. I call my wife: ‘Hello, you are Mariam? Yes, this is your husband.’ My wife is crying, my children are crying, it’s happy.”
As he hung up that first call, Hassan says he wept and kissed Simmonds’ phone again and again.
Hassan’s case is unusual for its swift and happy resolution. The separation of families due to conflict and migration is common. Without any idea where their relatives are, or the ability to search for them themselves, people around the world turn to Red Cross’s IFT teams for help.
In the first nine months of 2017, the British Red Cross had 2,157 such inquiries and its IFT teams took on 867 cases.
The IFT units fielded 50% more inquiries in 2015 (2,874) than in 2014 (1,865). This year, 53% of the inquiries came from unaccompanied or separated children.
Andrea Wood is one of the service managers of the IFT office in London, where 10 staff and volunteers are buzzing about on a Tuesday morning logging enquiries, filing reports with Red Cross services around the world and interviewing clients. Wood says it is often only the very hardest cases that make it through their doors.
“What many of the people will have done is tried many other ways themselves with community groups or other people they know,” says Wood.
There are a few ways the Red Cross can help people: reaching out to UNHCR or Red Cross teams in various countries, consulting European-wide databases of missing people, or even getting people to draw maps of the last place they saw a family member, so that a local Red Cross team can go out and try to get a message to them.
Success rates are not high. In 2016, British Red Cross IFT teams were able to resolve 213 cases. In 151 cases, people were traced and contact reestablished. In 32 cases they provided the news of a death. In 17 cases partial information was provided, and in 13 cases no contact was wanted by the person found.
The number of successful cases drops even further when there is no obvious place to start a search for someone, for instance if people were separated during a journey.
In these cases, the Red Cross takes a photograph of the person searching for their family, which is then uploaded to a website, Trace the Face. The site is publicly available and makes for depressing viewing, featuring more than 3,000 photographs of people with captions such as “I’m looking for my father”, “I’m looking for my wife”, “I’m looking for my family”.
Since 2013, Trace the Face has yielded just nine successful reconnections for the British Red Cross.
Wood says managing expectations is one of the most difficult parts of the work in family tracing. “Searching for lost people is not quick. It can be – occasionally it completely astounds us all and we think: how can that possibly have happened? But it can take an incredibly long time.”
In the meantime, the waiting is often torturous, as people suffer from “ambiguous loss”, similar to that experienced by people whose loved ones go missing or into a coma. Wood says these ambiguous losses can be “absolutely catastrophic” and are often more difficult to deal with than a death.
“However much you’re trying to get on with your life, which is hard enough anyway, battling through the asylum system, there’s that emotional paralysis of ‘how can I engage here in my life when all of my feelings are there?’” she says.
This is certainly the experience of Taliya Frouza Savaheli, who after two years of searching, much of which has been supported by the Red Cross in London and Athens, still does not know what happened to her younger brother Reza.
Savaheli, who lives in London, last saw her brother in 2015, on a family holiday in Turkey. At that time, Reza, then 34, was living in Iran and was desperate to leave. He told his sister he was going to travel from Turkey to Greece with a friend.
A month later, Reza’s friend arrived back in Iran, but there was no sign of Reza. The friend said they had become separated trying to cross a river. No one has heard from him since.
“Whatever it takes for me to find him, I’ll do,” Savaheli says.
The first thing she did, the day after she heard Reza was missing, was book an appointment with the British Red Cross’s IFT team in London.
Since then she has travelled to meet the Red Cross team in Athens, tried to get more of the story from the friend in Iran and, on the advice of the IFT unit, visited the Iranian foreign ministry. She intends to travel to the small Turkish town where he was last seen.
“I think maybe he changed his looks, maybe he changed his name, maybe he met someone. I tell myself these things to keep myself going,” she says. “We need something, we need to find a piece of him.”
Hassan is still waiting to see his family again. As a refugee, he is entitled to bring his wife and dependent children to the UK, and he is waiting to see if they will be granted visas.
He is particularly nervous about his eldest son, who is 19. It is not straightforward to bring in children over the age of 18 under family reunion provisions.
While he waits, Hassan is making the most of his renewed contact with the family.
“Now I talk with them on WhatsApp and Imo every night, in the morning, two times, three times, every day. I don’t sleep because I am talking with them [for] three, four hours.”
Published on The Guardian on December 25, 2017