"I am alive"

The confusion and chaos of conflict and disaster separates families just when they need each other most, causing unbearable suffering. Often, the three simple words “I am alive” may be all that’s needed to ease the minds of loved ones. Known as Restoring Family Links, The American Red Cross works through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies worldwide to search for missing loved ones and reconnect families.

“I am so happy to know my family is well.”

Onesphore Ndaribitse was living with his wife and four young daughters in a refugee camp in Tanzania. When the camp closed in 1996, they were forced to separate camps and lost contact. For more than 12 years, Onesphore heard no news about his family’s well-being.

Now living on the North Side of Chicago, Onesphore opened a tracing inquiry with the Greater Chicago Red Cross. We were thrilled to inform him that his family was alive in Rwanda. We brought Onesphore handwritten messages and photos of his adolescent daughters – just babies last time he saw them. Thanks to the Red Cross Network, Onesphore and his family are in touch and communicate regularly through free Red Cross Messages.

This past week I visited Onesphore because we had another message from Rwanda. It was our first time meeting and his timid character and limited English proved to be an initial barrier. However, the minute I tried to communicate in French, his face lit up. He appreciated our visit and personal care in delivering the news directly to him. At the end of our visit, Onesphore walked us down to our car. We said good-bye in French and he waved back to us with a big smile.

Red Cross Message from Rwanda

The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago helps to reconnect families each year, with services including:
Locating missing loved ones separated by armed conflict or disaster;
Sending Red Cross Messages between separated family members – civilians, prisoners of war and political detainees;
Obtaining information about the fate of civilians, including those separated during the Holocaust and World War II;
Providing Certificates of Detention to former detainees visited by the ICRC;
Securing ICRC travel documents for people who have been offered permanent resettlement; and
Providing information and referral services.

For more information about the Restoring Family Links program, please contact Emma Crandell Ratajczak at ratajczake@usa.redcross.org or 312.729.6238.

Meredith Sanna, International Services Intern

Nothing But an Emblem to Protect You

“Red Cross workers don’t need guns to protect them in hostile environments. They only use an emblem. And it works. So gangster. #rulesofwar

For the first time, the Red Cross invited people to participate in our free International Humanitarian Law class from their home computers, and a virtual participant posted this tweet shortly after our Wednesday night class. She was alluding to a conversation from the class that basically went like this:

In-class participant: “So you’re telling me that the Red Cross delegate goes into an enemy prison, tells them all of the ways that they’re violating International Humanitarian Law and they have no army or court or means to enforce the law?”

Instructor: “Basically, yes. Humanitarian Law as laid out in the Geneva Conventions is largely enforced through the notion that we are neutral and enforce it for everyone, including ‘their own.’ The ‘enemy,’ is receiving the same benefit for their prisoners of war in another prison. Reciprocity, confidentiality and neutrality motivate detaining authorities to comply.”

In-class participant: “Who protects the Red Cross delegate? The UN? Police? Security? Do they carry a gun?”

Instructor: “It is only the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem that protects them.”

Now, what you need to know about me is that I’m a marketer, by trade. The Red Cross emblem is my logo to protect. To hear a conversation like this imparts a tremendous sense of responsibility and pride for me as the Director of Marketing and Communications at theAmerican Red Cross of Greater Chicago.


My logo keeps Red Cross delegates safe, here and abroad. The red cross logo communicates to people, regardless of the language they speak, that “relief is offered to everyone here” with the same level of recognition as men or women’s bathroom sign. It evokes a deep emotional response in the people who’ve been touched by it. Occasionally, I get seated in exit rows on planes, perhaps because airline workers assume I’m comfortable in a disaster when they see my Red Cross lapel pin. There’s a strange and mysterious power in our emblem.

I was a speaker at a Social Media Club of Chicago event last night. I discussed, “How has the Red Cross logo come to bear so much power and influence?” My opinion is that it is largely through a long history of action in place of words and shared values in place of rhetoric. But I don’t know for sure. I told the social media experts in the room that I suspect people who encounter our emblem “feel heard and held when they need it most.” I insinuated that our credibility may be helped by admitting to and learning from failures to better address the next disaster.

Prior to my speaking engagement at the Social Media Club, I attended a remarkable 2-day Cusp Conference that explores “the design of everything.” I heard about innovative programs that are using design principles to make the world a better place. Projects like Design for America at Northwestern University are revolutionizing how we solve the world’s most complex and gnarly problems.

So, in less than 48 hours, 1) I witnessed stellar examples of how better design can change our world at the Cusp Conference. 2) I discussed at the Social Media Club of Chicago how loyalty to an emblem or logo can play a part in preserving the dignity of humanity. And 3) I was reminded by our class Tweeter that in the hotbed of American violence — communities governed by gang warfare — Red Cross delegates might be understood by the people with whom they must negotiate for peace should the need ever arise.

And all of this got me thinking… What if the brilliant designers at Cusp applied their expertise to this goal: design a way to mobilize everyone who wants to help during a disaster in a way that makes the best possible use of their skills.

Here in Chicago, alone, the Red Cross respond to 3-4 home fires every day that require not only volunteers, but also greater awareness of fire risks. Before disasters like fires and floods occur, we need to motivate people to prepare for the unthinkable. People separated by war — soldiers and refugees — need to be connected through the Chicago Red Cross with their loved ones. We also need ambassadors who will help us explain that this response effort requires funding since we are not a govenment-funded entity.

Among the materials at your disposal in the design process:

  • loyalty to a relief mission
  • social media as an activation tool
  • your design expertise
  • an organization that might be willing to beta test your idea because we’re used to dealing with the unexpected and disaster.

You’d also have something else at your disposal. Energy — the remarkable energy that exists in the hearts and minds of people with an appetite for a better world.

Would you be willing to help with that? If so, let’s talk.



Written by Jackie Mitchell

Chicago Red Cross joins forces with Chicago Sister Cities to aid Pakistan in their time of need.

It was a great day for the Red Cross. Two days ago I attended a Lahore Pakistan fundraising event hosted by Chicago Sister Cities. It was a great experience for me to see so many people from all over the world coming together to help a country in need. Governor Pat Quinn, and Senator Dick Durbin were two of the attendees of this event. Their emotional speeches truly inspired a lot of people to open their hearts and help those in need. I was truly honored to see these two political figures coming down to join in the effort to help Pakistan. The fundraiser was a huge success raising a grand total of $34,734 for Pakistan flooding disaster relief efforts. “We want to make sure that we rebuild the schools, rebuild the roads, and we help people who are in dire straits,” Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said. Senator Dick Durbin remarked, “When we hear of the need of someplace in the world like Pakistan we gather together as one family.” This is one of many huge steps in helping Pakistan recover from this terrible disaster. With a little help and generosity we can all make a difference. To date we’ve pledged $5 million to the relief efforts.
For more information about how the American Red Cross is helping in Pakistan visit

See how Red Cross is doing their part to help Pakistan.

Written by Lucas Centeno

Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces reaches out to returning Marines.

On August 14th 2010 I attended a briefing held by Cindy Price at 2711 Mcdonough Street in Joliet. The purpose of the briefing was to educate Marines returning from a deployment about all the services the Red Cross offers to them, and their families. Cindy was very friendly and professional as she talked to the Marines about the many services the Red Cross has to offer. The marines left with a vast amount of knowledge about the Red Cross programs including psychiatric help, life insurance for veterans, and guidance on coping with pre and post deployments. To find out more about the Chicago Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces visit www.chicagoredcross.org/military

Watch as Cindy talks about the Get To Know Us Brief

This Same Message is also Broadcast to Enemy Forces

Why respect international humanitarian law? “It’s good for you whoever you are. The perpetrator is damaged, not just the victim.”

One of eight remarkable classmates said this last night in the Red Cross International Humanitarian Law class I attended at the Chicago Chapter. The class, at no cost to the student, teaches participants about the body of rules and principles that seeks to save lives and alleviate suffering during armed conflict.

My discussion partner for group exercises was a vibrant and dynamic man from the Sudan. Together, we grappled with questions like, “What is dignity?” and “Do you think it makes sense to have laws that limit suffering in armed conflict?” and “Does a certain level of violence have to occur for it to be considered an armed conflict?”

In trying to formulate answers, my classmates and I were reminded of the duties and privileges that come with being human. We gained a new appreciation for the power of neutrality and its ability to create accountability without violence.

Those engaged in wars and armed conflicts are fighting for something. And when the fighting ends, the best we can hope for is that the “something” can be rebuilt on a foundation that is comprised of solid things – goodness, respect, dignity, the humane, innocence.

Even my classmates were careful to respect one another and the constructive nature of the class. They would caveat answers to complex questions with phrases like, “If you set aside whether war is an allowable and acceptable action…” or “Though I recognize that I have the luxury of turning the conflict off with my remote, I think…”

Yes, I learned a lot in the class last night about the Geneva Conventions, the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross and a long, relentless process to adapt humanitarian law to keep up with people’s clever ways of working around it. As our facilitator aptly pointed out, “The law has to change all the time because people want to kill each other and find loopholes to do it.”

But I also witnessed my classmates protect one another’s dignity, and I witnessed our facilitator gracefully admit that we don’t know the answers to many of the questions raised in this tricky business of preserving humanity. Even tweeters who virtually participated, played nice and weighed in respectfully.

We watched several brief videos that are used to educate combatants about the laws that govern humanitarianism during war. They broadcast ideas like, “True fighters will treat wounded opponents with respect and compassion.”

All videos ended the same way, though. “This same message is also broadcast to enemy forces.”

A difficult-to-swallow, but good ending, don’t you think? The reminder that we are all united on one thing, at least — suffering.

– By Jackie Mitchell, American Red Cross of Greater Chicago, @your_mssunshine

Red Cross – Peace and Conflict Mediation

Earlier today National Public Radio posted an interesting article (here) about the most recent clashes in central Nigeria. In particular, they mentioned that the Nigerian Red Cross has adopted an interesting approach to community health. As a result of the violence, the local Red Cross Chapter has combined Standard First Aid programs with peace and conflict resolution training. Since local residents are becoming increasingly motivated to avoid further bloodshed, Red Cross volunteers and staff have actually designed and implemented a program that attempts to diffuse potentially violent situations. While they are training community members to respond to some of the physical injuries that have taken place, the Nigerian Red Cross is also equipping citizens with the knowledge and ability to stem the surge of killings that have occurred over the past few months. Local coordinators like Manase Panpe are teaching residents about conflict transformation and open community dialogue as alternatives to violence. His strategy focuses on those most likely to be involved in the clashes:

“The targeted beneficiaries are perpetrators, inciters and victims of violent conflicts. You have the power to transform a potential conflict to a peaceful one.”

Chicago area residents who have an interest in this sort of community justice might enjoy taking the free International Humanitarian Law class offered by the American Red Cross. In addition to tackling tough issues like genocide and ethnic violence, the IHL program investigates the roll of the individual in mitigating conflict. Click here if you’re interested in participating!

Beginning a New Chapter with Hala, an Iraqi Woman Who Heals Through Helping

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. For the Red Cross, it is a tragic reminder that during times of war, women’s voices often go unheard and their specific needs are overlooked. Women displaced by armed conflict – often living alone with their children – are frequently exposed to sexual violence, discrimination and intimidation. Many face poverty and social exclusion as well.

Yesterday, I had the honor of hearing a young woman’s story that put in stark clarity the harsh realities of armed conflict’s impact on women.

Hala, 20, a student at DePaul is an Iraqi woman who had to leave her Bagdad home with her mother and brother when she was only 13 years old. In 2003, her mother, a Bagdad University professor, fled to Syria with her two children, leaving their extended family behind when she and many of her professional colleagues faced kidnapping and death if they chose to continue to work.

When their savings ran out a year later, they returned to Bagdad, where they lived in a church during some of the most violent years. Hala’s school was near the green zone, so, in addition to the kidnappings and deaths her family’s loved ones endured, Hala witnessed the impact of war on her way to and from high school. When the conflict became unendurable, Hala and her brother were forced to flee to safety to Syria again, but this time without their mother.

“The time was very confusing. We had a great life and a great education. It wasn’t easy, but what people don’t understand is that we had a good life and a peaceful one.” She shared with me. “The violence became so bad. ‘What now?’ I asked myself. We realized one day that we had to move on.”

In Syria, Hala found relief and healing through volunteerism with the Red Crescent Society and a local environmental campaign. “This is where I began my healing process. I was a victim in Iraq. Now I was helping. I was wearing this Red Crescent vest and it was a big thing to be able to help someone just register their name.”

Hala tried to keep busy through food distribution and medical relief efforts that supported the more than 2 million Iraqi refugees who wanted to live and work in Syria, as well as the many poor Syrians who lived in Damascus. She took Red Cross First Aid and Disaster courses. “Everyday I would see people coming and I would hear their stories. I’d talk to them and listen to them. It was so meaningful to me. When you speak to them you add hope.”

Through her volunteer work, she met the founders of the Iraqi Student Project (ISP) who, ultimately, played a critical role in Hala’s enrollment in DePaul University, where she began school in August of 2009 supported by a 4 year scholarship. At DePaul, Hala translates and provides technology support for the International Institute of Human Rights Law when she isn’t working on her degree in Information Assurance.

“One day you have to grow up. You have to be older really fast,” she says. “When people tell me I’m mature, it is sort of good and sort of bad. Sometimes it would be good to just be a kid. ”

Hala plans to continue her healing process by getting involved in international and local relief work through the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago when she isn’t focused on her studies. After graduation, she plans to return home to rebuild her country again.

International humanitarian law includes specific provisions protecting women, for example when they are pregnant or as mothers of young children. The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago is currently offering a free International Humanitarian Law (IHL) course to the public because we have a unique mandate to educate the public about humanitarian principles and international treaties meant to save lives and alleviate suffering during armed conflict. Through a discussion-based approach, this newly updated course explores the concept of human dignity in the midst of war. The next class is March 27.

Since I began working for the Red Cross last fall, I have been shocked by the degree to which international issues hit close to home in Chicago. Through our chapter’s involvement with International Red Cross and Red Crescent Humanitarian mission and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), we repeatedly see that the impact is local.

I haven’t taken the class yet, but, like Hala, wearing the red vest is healing for me. Connecting with others who appreciate that suffering is a universal experience repeatedly makes my life better. I am incredibly inspired by the courage of this young lady and my hope is that we go to our first class together. I can’t imagine a greater honor in my own Red Cross journey than to begin the next chapter together here in Chicago.

Do you care to join us?

Haiti Donation Update

Check out these links to stories from other Red Cross volunteers in Haiti. The work being done there by our volunteers is so important and the people of Haiti are so inspiring. Thank you all for your continued support!