The last three weeks were a mix of very intense ups and downs that left me frequently frustrated, sleepless and banging my head against a table, but ultimately gave me a sense of satisfaction that cannot be found in many other jobs: the knowledge that I had a very real, positive impact on the lives of people – and not just of an anonymous group of beneficiaries, but individuals whose names and histories I know.
Admittedly things didn’t start well: at first six children who were on our list to be repatriated lost their home and we had to find a new place for them to live. Then, in an example of absolutely no coordination and lone-wolfmanship, another organization took the same children from their new home and moved them to a refugee camp against their will where they had massive problems getting food. Then, the baby of 16-year old child whom we were supposed to bring to Ivory Coast got malaria and had to be hospitalized, and finally, at the last minute an agency put new bureaucratic obstacles in our path, clearly without the best interest of the children at heart. (I’m still mad).
Happy moments at the border
However, all of that frustration melted away when we picked up the children at the morning of the repatriation and took them to the border. The good-byes were warm and heartfelt and the excitement of the children was tangible. I know that I will always treasure the moment at the border when we handed the children over to our colleagues from ICRC Ivory Coast and the joy I felt when I got a text-message later that day, saying that the children had arrived and had been warmly welcomed by their families. After all, these children were not anonymous cases for me, but I was involved in registering some of them, following up their cases, talking with them about their hopes and fears and finally organizing their repatriation.
Communication makes a difference
All of this made me think about what it is we do when we are “restoring family links”:
Physically bringing people back together by providing transport and travel documents is the exception. In the majority cases we help with so called “Red Cross Messages” and by providing people with free phone calls so that they can tell their family members where they are, how they are, or simply that they are still alive. Sometimes it takes many months, before they get an answer to a message, for example when the recipient has moved to a different part of the country and it takes time and effort for my colleagues to find them.
What makes this service so special is, that we are not presuming that we know what is best for the affected people, but that we give them the means to decide themselves what is best for them; that is something very empowering and a different mindset than behind many programmes that provide material assistance.
Putting refugees in control of their destiny
Of course I know that this type of protection work is just a niche and that relief / shelter / food programmes which sometimes have to serve tens of thousands of people within a few days or weeks cannot approach things from each individual’s point of view. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s incredibly rewarding to be working for an organization that puts the individual in control of his/her destiny.
I have read a lot of Red Cross Messages (they are open, similar to postcards, and we are required to read them before transporting them). Many of them simply say: “I’m glad to hear from you. It’s safe in our village. Please come back”, and I was thinking about how much of a difference these few words can make to a refugee living in a strange country where he can’t speak the language and is dependent on the aid of others. These few words mean that he now has a choice, an alternative. He himself can decide to stay where he is, or to go back home and rebuild his life.
Being part of this process – be it the actual repatriations or just the conveying of messages – is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life.