by Lou Mancinelli
In 2012 an Afghani militia burned down the house, killed the father and youngest sister of an Afghani refugee now living in Philadelphia, whom a Chestnut Hill resident is working to reconnect with his sister in Afghanistan.
The man’s father worked in special forces with the American military, but when the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan, a local militia took action. Men demanded the family’s oldest sister be married to one of the militia men; the family refused.
The refusal led to the man’s kidnapping. His sister agreed to go with the militia in exchange for his freedom. After having lived in Pakistan in 2012, the man, now 28, and his mother applied for refugee status in 2012 through the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for refugees. In 2014, they arrived in Philadelphia.
Robert Pollock, 72, of Chestnut Hill, has volunteered as an international tracing coordinator with the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania for the past four years. In 2013 he helped Mark Chew connect with seven siblings back in Vietnam, who Chew thought had died in the fall of Saigon in 1975. That’s when Chew, a young boy then, was adopted by an American man and moved to the U.S. Chew later graduated from West Chester University and opened a restaurant. He has since visited Vietnam to meet his family.
“I can’t even imagine these stories they tell me,” said Pollock, who began volunteering with the Red Cross after he retired from a career in finance. “They’re so horrendous. You just can’t imagine yourself living through something like that.”
According to Pollock, he sees 30 to 40 cases a year. But the international tracing services provided by the Red Cross are not well known; some members of the Red Cross don’t even know it exists. The service reconnects refugees and family members separated by war, conflict or other disaster.
Outreach is a big part of that service. Until a few years ago, 70 percent of these cases originated outside of the U.S. But groups like Philadelphia Regional Refugee Provider Committee, an organization of 17 related agencies, like mental health and English as a Second Language providers, that can point interested local refugees to the Red Cross, are helping to raise the number of cases originating in the Philadelphia area. And this past July, Philadelphia celebrated World Refugee Day.
Nationally, the Red Cross reconnects separated family members 60 percent of the time. According to the Red Cross, 65.3 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees under the age of 18. That means 34,000 people are displaced from their homes every day.
The case involving the Afghani man has been difficult, but Pollock says the search is what’s interesting. It starts when a refugee comes to Pollock. Through interviews, Pollock collects as much information as he can, which has to be as specific as possible, about where a refugee’s family is located. That information is sent to headquarters in Washington, where various databases are checked. If a family is registered in the UN database as refugees, reconnecting them might be relatively easy.
Other times it’s trickier. The Red Cross wants to know exactly where a person is. If they are sending representatives into dangerous areas in Afghanistan, Congo, the Sudan, they want to be sure they only have to go in once, Pollock explained.
Sometimes refugees’ families are living in extremely dangerous, hard-to-reach areas without road names. Pollock and the refugees he’s worked with have at times needed to create hand-drawn maps, where the directions include information about a local supermarket, school, police station or mosque and a river or mountain for reference.
Google Maps for Afghanistan are pretty bare. If Pollock and the Afghan man do find his sister, the International Red Cross will work with the Afghan Red Crescent Society, a group on the ground in Afghanistan. Two times Pollock sent the man’s information to headquarters in Washington D.C., and two times Washington asked for more specifics.
Pollock ended up returning to the man’s house in late July, where the man and his mother continued to answer questions about where the man’s sister might be and what happened to their family. Although the men learned English, this info is all written in Farsi, the man’s native language. (Farsi is the most widely spoken member of the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian languages.)
“As a result of the refusal, I was kidnapped,” the man wrote on a National Services Center blog. “It was about three of four days … I don’t know where I was, but I do know that it was a dark place …. I cried. I can’t see anybody. I can’t eat. They hurt me … I still have a big scar across my back… I was finally returned to my mother because of [my sister], who agreed to go with the militia in exchange for my safe return. [… my older sister] was missing—she was like my second mother.”
Pollock believes that rhetoric against accepting refugees is unjustified and largely perpetuated by people who have no understanding of what the refugees have endured.
“There are a lot of people who just don’t understand that refugees have the same aspirations and fears as the rest of us,” he said, “just as our ancestors who came to America before us.”
For more information about this life-saving work, call 215-299-4000 or visit www.redcross.org.