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Year after year, countless families are separated by armed conflict, migration and disaster.
And for countries caught in the grip of COVID-19, these separations are only increasing.
As fierce as fire, it has hurtled towards countries untouched, invading without pause. This life-threatening disease has changed life as we know it.
For now, there’s no leaping across the street to hug a friend, no squealing of laughter at the playground, no cheering of teams on the sports field.
We've had to stay at home, stop the spread and save lives, comforted only in the knowledge that, at the very least, we are safe in a bubble with our nearest and dearest.
But sadly, for too many, there is no such comfort.
They are now alone. Isolated. Afraid.
They fear for the fate of their loved ones from afar.
This is why New Zealand Red Cross is supporting families and loved ones who have lost contact due to the COVID-19 pandemic, checking on their health and wellbeing through our Restoring Family Links service.
“If all usual means of communication fail, New Zealand Red Cross can help. We are here, ready to trace family members and report on the health and wellbeing of people in New Zealand to their families overseas. We also work with our Red Cross and Red Crescent colleagues around the world to seek answers for Kiwis here about their family members overseas, in what can be a very difficult and stressful time,” says Rachel O’Connor, General Manager Migration.
Restoring Family Links has a long history of helping loved ones separated by conflict and disaster. Supporting hundreds of Kiwis over the past year, the service was used in both the devastating tragedy that unfolded on Whakaari/White Island and in the aftermath of the horrific Christchurch terror attacks, helping families to learn of one another’s whereabouts, and survivors to tell people, “I am alive. I am safe. I am OK.”
It’s helped people like Sherin who, forced to flee Afghanistan and separated from her son Ali, spent years worrying for his safety, never sure of his fate. “They were horrible days. There were nights I could not sleep,” she says.
Those days turned into months, months into years.
Sherin was constantly living with fear, worry, dread.
Until finally there came a different day. The phone rang.
She recognised the voice on the other end of the line, though it had been many years. Her son, Ali.
“It is you, it is you!” she cried.
Sherin finally got to hear the words, “I am alive. I am safe. I am OK.”
Ali had found a new home in New Zealand but had never stopped looking for Sherin.
For the next few years, Ali worked with Immigration New Zealand to gain permission for his mother to join him, to help her find a new life as he had.
But when the day finally arrived, they faced one final obstacle.
Sherin didn’t have a passport.
They were so close, yet so far.
Ali didn’t give up. He turned to Restoring Family Links, who helped him organise the paperwork that would bring his mother back to him.
In cases like Sherin’s, when no one else can help, Red Cross can provide an internationally recognised travel document. It isn’t a passport but it can be used, just once, to get you to your new home, your new life.
It took many people many months of work to get one of these documents for the family, but they did. And the last leg of a very long journey, a journey to a new beginning, could start.
Sherin doesn’t like to fly, but this flight to Wellington was an exception. “I am usually scared of planes and flights but I was that happy that I got on the flight,” she says. “It did not enter my mind that one day I would get to see him again.”
But she did, on the doorstep of her new home in Wellington. “I started crying when he opened the door and fell into my arms.”
Finally, after so many lost years, she had her boy back where he belonged.
Whether it be armed conflict, the likes of which forced Sherin and Ali apart, the devastation of disaster or the disruption of displacement, Restoring Family Links can help families discover news of their missing loved ones.
It can reunite a mother with her child.