Turkey: Bringing families back together

By Helena Loh, IFRC

“E.T. phone home?” “E.T. phone home.” “And they’ll come?” “Come? Home. Home.”  Hearing these words while watching the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1994, six-year-old Yasmina Peker cried so hard that her mother had to tell her the happy ending to stop her tears.

Today, Yasmina is Team Leader of Turkish Red Crescent Society’s Restoring Family Links (RFL) community-based migration programme. She smiles as she remembers the movie, “I remember how E.T. wanted to go home, but couldn’t, and it really affected me,” she said.

As descendent of people separated during the Cold War, Yasmina’s quest is to bring families together, many of whom have been lost or separated along the migratory route. She believes family is core to social networks and identity.

The Restoring Family Links programme, which includes tracing, family reunification and Red Cross and Red Crescent messaging services, is unique to the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. But experiences of trauma and separation are seldom shared easily.

Through her work, Yasmina has discovered how difficult it is to actually find someone. Processes are long and complex, and paperwork can be overwhelming, with the red tape of bureaucracy stretching across institutions, laws and international borders.

“Some stories do have a happy ending, though,” said Yasmina. One that comes to mind is an Iraqi child looking for his grandmother. Though he had her name and village in Turkey, nothing could be done until a Turkish Red Crescent RFL team member, together with the Red Crescent’s Community Centre protection officer, went there to seek her out. After much asking around, residents finally pointed him to the lady herself. However, with the child having lost his parents, a mountain of paperwork and a slew of messages were required before grandmother and grandson could finally be together.

Social media too can be useful. With help from the Red Crescent through this programme, two brothers who came through Turkey on their way to northern Europe and were separated, managed to find each other through Facebook.

While Red Cross and Red Crescent messaging manages to put families in touch some 90 to 92 per cent of the time, there have been only 18 success stories among more than 500 family reunification cases that have been ongoing since January 2017. Tracing has had even lower rates of success, with only four or five cases resolved among the 500-odd cases pending.

Why is it so hard? Yasmina explained: “Because most of our work is based on people’s memories.

“Memories change and fade, time and trauma blur perception and often people do not recall things clearly,” she said. And then there is the challenge of spelling. The name Mohammed alone is spelled in more than ten different ways, and database searching does not bring up a match unless it is exactly the same.

Still, achieving success does not lie entirely with the Restoring Family Links team - people seeking family can do something to help themselves as well. Yasmina advises self-care to begin with. “You must be strong to support others,” she said with conviction. “Apart from keeping as physically healthy as you can, psychological help is not a luxury, but necessary to prepare for the future.”

“It also helps to inform National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in all the countries of transit and arrival in case a trace is put out. Migrants should also reach out to their diaspora in the country of arrival.”

Despite her obvious optimism and motivation, working in the programme is no picnic for Yasmina and her team. It is hard to ease the frustration of people seeking their families.

When asked how she deals with the emotional side of the entire process, Yasmina replied, “I think about how I would describe my family members if I were to lose them. It could help to prepare yourself how you would search for them. Nobody wants to be in this situation. But it is important to be prepared.”

For more information about the Restoring Family Links programme under the Turkish Red Crescent’s Migration and Refugee Services, click here. More information on the work of the Community Centres supported by the Turkish Red Crescent and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) can be found here.