Bridging the Path to Preparedness in Ecuador

VeronicaPreparedness.  I talk about it often as part of my job.  I share tips and helpful information about how to better prepare, and often wonder if people actually feel confident about what to do in case of an emergency.  But I am now content to know that in South America, specifically Ecuador, families and communities know exactly what to do in case of an emergency.

I was fortunate to travel with another staff member from the Red Cross International Communications team to Ecuador in late March where we visited coastal areas, since earthquakes and tsunamis are big threats there. The American Red Cross, in partnership with USAID, funds preparedness programs to teach communities everything from first aid, and lifeguarding skills to disaster preparedness.  We also visited a few rural communities where flooding is their big threat, and I was in awe at how prepared everyone was.  Ever since these programs were implemented, the culture among the community has become all about preparedness.

We spoke to community residents who were so proud of the skills they had learned from the Red Cross.  I was particularly impressed when we visited a school in Manglaralto named Escuela Alfredo Sanz Rivera.  The kids were on vacation, but came to the school to greet us and show us everything they had learned through the program.  I was in awe as these kids, who were not much older than 12 years old, knew so much about first aid, how to use an extinguisher and how to carry a patient on a stretcher.  They told us how they had already put their skills to good use by helping out their siblings when one of them was burned.  I have a 15-year-old son and am sure his first instinct would be to use Google.

photoSome of the areas we visited had to great creative with their evacuation plans. The town of Briceño de Afuera is a small community outside of Guayaquil. People were excited that we had come to visit. They were eager to share their evacuation plans with us. This town is prone to flooding, but not from rain, rather from the nearby bodies of water that rises.

There is only one convenience store for the whole community and you must cross a bamboo bridge to get to the store. There were several of these bamboo bridges which looked like they could fall apart at any given moment. I actually had to cross one of the bamboo bridges and was scared to death.  The water below me looked muddy and dirty. But it helped me to think about the people that I had just met, that lived there and how it was their way of life.

They showed us the community evacuation plan they had created with the help of the Red Cross.  A member of the community had drawn the map and plan by hand. They went through every detail and were proud of the plan they had created. They demonstrated to us how they use a homemade firecracker to announce to the town that there is an evacuation. Yes, a firecracker!  It looked like a bottle rocket that I use to light up when I was a kid. It apparently works well as an early warning system for community members. The whole town attested to the fact that they knew exactly what to do when they heard the loud pop.

We are so fortunate to live in a country where we have so many resources and help at our fingertips.  However, it is extremely humbling to know that we, at the Red Cross are helping in other parts of the world.  Communities are being resourceful however they can.  I’ve never been more confident about the importance of teaching preparedness.  Because even if we think we know it all, our mission is still helping others, somewhere in the world in getting better prepared.


Written by Veronica Vasquez, a member of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago, who traveled to Ecuador in late March 2014.

Syrian Conflict Separates Sisters – Red Cross Reconnects Them

Syria%20Map%201I recently had the opportunity to speak to members of the Restoring Family Links Advocate Committee at their annual meeting in DC.  It was an honor to be invited and I was grateful for the opportunity to share about some of my cases.

One of these cases involved a family tracing effort for a woman named Sara (pseudonym) in Chicago who had lost contact with her sister. This scenario is fairly common for the Restoring Family Links program at the American Red Cross, but what was difficult about this case is that my client’s sister was living in war-torn Syria.

Sara came to our office with her daughter, and together they told us the story of their family. Sara’s sister was living with her children in a remote region of Syria. Normally Sara would call her sister daily—just to have a quick conversation and make sure that the family was all right.

One day Sara called and the phone lines were down. This had Syria%20Map%202happened before, but normally the lines would be operating within a few days. However, this time, that did not happen. She started calling more frequently, not just once, but multiple times a day. Every time, the results were the same: the phone lines remained down.

Through Internet research, the family discovered that the area had come under fighting and attacks had destroyed the phone lines. What the family could not find through these searches, however, was any information about potential deaths through these clashes. They simply had no way of knowing the fate of their family members.

Since the start of the civil war, over 2 million refugees have fled Syria for the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq with millions more displaced internally.

There was additional concern. Various sides were trying to recruit Sara’s young nephews. Her anxiety had become unbearable. Sara wanted to start a family tracing case, but was worried that efforts to locate the family might bring unwanted attention that could harm the young boys who had thus far avoided joining the fighting.

The story was heartbreaking. The details and levels of concern were very difficult to hear. Despite a desire to help and a sincere compassion for the family, my RFL team and I worried about logistics.

Would National Headquarters be able to accept the case?

Would the Syrian Red Crescent be able to conduct RFL work at this time?

How long would the family have to wait to find other any news?

After a frantic phone call with a caseworker in DC, I was encouraged to submit the case. Not only was it accepted, but it was also marked as high priority and released for tracing work to begin. Within weeks, we received notice that the family was found! Through already established religious networks, we were able to contact the family and confirm that they were ALIVE and well!

I cannot describe to you the relief that Sara expressed when she was told the news! In time, the phone lines were restored, and she was once again able to talk to her sister.

I have checked in with the family, and the story remains the same. Life in Syria is still incredibly hard, but what has changed is that the family now knows that they have an ally. They know that if the phones go down again, someone can help.

There are many instances where I have been unsure if a case can even be accepted, yet, a family reconnection occurs. This is why I do tracing work and love being an RFL caseworker.

Written by: Christa Kuntzelman