“I did not know if my parents and seven brothers and sisters were dead or alive. I did not know if they were together or not, or what country they were even in,” says Jean-Damascène Hakizimana.

The 29-year-old is originally from Rwanda. He was separated from his family over two decades ago after his family fled their country in search of safety.

Jean-Damascène was 8 years old at the time and taken to an orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But he never gave up hope of finding his loved ones.

"Ten members of a family cannot all disappear,’’ he says.

This experience of losing contact with family due to armed conflict, other situations of violence, from disasters or migration is becoming increasingly common.

It is a humanitarian issue which is under-reported, scarcely acknowledged, and getting worse. It’s impossible to put an exact figure on the number of people who remain missing today, however, it is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands across the globe.

The disappearance of a family member causes unimaginable pain and has a lasting impact on the family, their community and society.

In Jean-Damascène’s case, he was forced to grow up fast and learn to survive living in a foreign country.

He eventually resettled in Canada where he sought help from the Red Cross to find his missing family members.

After two years of searching, he received the news he’d been waiting for. The Red Cross Restoring Family Links service had located his mother, two of his brothers, and three of his sisters, all of whom were living in Rwanda.

“I immediately called my mother,” he remembers with emotion. “She was crying and said, ‘it is you, it is you!’”

Jean-Damascène was happy to be reunited with his family after years of separation 

The Restoring Family Links service is part of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network across 190 countries, with national societies working together to help families that have been separated due to armed conflict or other situations of violence, disasters or migration. The service helps family restore contact, maintain contact, and clarify the fate of those who are reported missing.

Two years after re-establishing contact, Jean-Damascène travelled to Uganda to be reunited with his mother, his older brother, and one of his sisters.

“When my mother and I met, we cried for a long time holding one another,” he says with a smile on his face.

Jean-Damascène’s story has a positive outcome but many don’t. When a person goes missing, their families have a right to know what has happened and the Red Cross Restoring Family Links service seeks to address this. 

In New Zealand over the past year, the Restoring Family Links team assisted more than 100 families trying to locate news of their loved ones. 

“It doesn’t matter how much time has passed, the families we assist have hope that somewhere their loved one is safe and well,” says Restoring Family Links Coordinator, Miriam Bugden. “It is our job alongside our colleagues overseas to try and find news of them.”

As people are increasingly forced to make desperate choices and take dangerous routes in search of safety and a better life, the number of missing people will only increase, making Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links work even more important.

How we can help

If you would like to know more about our Restoring Family Links service and how we can help you re-establish contact with a loved one, please visit our website.

You can also contact the Restoring Family Links team directly by emailing familylinks@redcross.org.nz or calling 04 494 1312.