Story and Photos By Karen Baldwin, Red Cross Restoring Family Links Caseworker
When I first met Shadia, it took only that first sight to halfway break my heart. She seemed young – VERY young. She had that slender, delicate look that makes one want to encircle her within a protective embrace. Huddling her arms close about herself, she sat hunched at the single, tiny table in her bare-as-bones one-room apartment. She bore the saddest expression on her beautiful young face, framed by a bright hijab – the only spot of brightness in the room.
Glancing around as we settled ourselves to talk on one of only two (hard) chairs, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of any curtains on the window, and the small, ragged futon sofa that clearly doubled as her bed -- the sole remaining content of the room. The other half of my heart broke to see this young girl in these circumstances.
Shadia’s ‘Restoring Family Links’ file revealed the terrible circumstances of her escape. Her mother had died giving birth to her twin sisters, Salma and Salha. Her father had been killed while serving in the Burundi military. She and her sister Hafsa, and the little twins, began living with her grandparents, two cousins and her Aunt, whose husband had been involved in politics and murdered because of it. But their home of Bujumbura, Burundi, was a still torn by civil war.
Shadia, then only 14, was at the market with her little sister Hafsa, her aunt and cousins when a rebel attack arose. In the midst of gunfire and violence, and not daring to return home, they fled, not even knowing if the rest of the family had gotten away. With the continuing gunfire and violence in the streets, it was unthinkable to consider returning home even after a little time had passed, as the danger had not. (Indeed, much later she would learn that her grandparents, still at home, had been murdered.) On foot, the little family troupe faced a journey of over 1500 kilometers to reach the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, far to the northwest. Prospects looked bad for a woman alone with four young children and no resources.
Long days spent traveling the road brought them to the refugee camp. But Shadia’s aunt was overwhelmed by all that had happened. After just a few months, her aunt stole away in the night with her own two children and all their belongings, leaving the two sisters confused and abandoned. After sleeping for a time in the camp’s refugee reception area, the officials eventually placed them with various foster families in the camp. A year later, 16-year old Shadia stayed home sick from school, one day, and her 10-year old sister went off to class as usual … but never came back.
Shadia, sick with grief and fear, searched desperately for her sister. In the camp. In the nearby town. With the camp officials. With the town’s police. But there was no word, no witness. Hafsa had disappeared without trace.
But time passes, as it must, and two years later, Shadia was allowed to emigrate, alone, to the United States late in 2014. Shortly after, she was referred to the Red Cross Restoring Family Links team in Denver in hopes of finding her missing family members.We stayed in touch with Shadia providing both a shoulder to lean on and a sympathetic ear to the displaced young girl. Even here, Shadia had it rougher than most. She was placed with a family that had neither room nor much patience for her, but at least let her sleep on their couch. She soon ended up homeless, moving between the homes of school friends.
Through all this, Shadia somehow continued to attend school, learn English, keep up with her lessons, and learn to negotiate a sometimes baffling culture that does not always welcome people like her. She took care of herself as best she could. One day, while exploring yet another place to stay temporarily, a teacher at her school overheard and offered help. That teacher changed things for Shadia. She found Shadia a subsidized low-rent apartment and even picked up the extra expense for it that Shadia had no way to pay.
All her perseverance, though, could not allay her deep sadness. When I met her, her face was full of pain, her eyes were downcast and would not meet mine, her arms wrapped close around herself. Despite all she’d survived, and all she’d accomplished for herself, she was still utterly alone in the world, and clearly felt it.
The Search Begins
Not every search is a straight line. With the help of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) we continued to search for her family for two years. After so long with either no tidings at all, or leads that hadn’t panned out, in June 2016, we at the Red Cross finally had good news for her … the Red Cross in Africa sent word that her paternal Aunt had been found, and this aunt knew where all three of Shadia’s sisters were -- I was so filled with anticipation to be able to tell her so!
Hearing the news that day, Shadia’s face awoke in light – her arms unwrapped from about herself and her hands raised to Allah together with her eyes. Her entire body seemed to unfold itself and a half-moon smile flashed large in relief and joy across her face. We celebrated, together.
But even then, we weren’t entirely out of the woods. Shadia did not know this ‘Aunt’ we had found, and doubt crept back into us when that Aunt proved unwilling to share the location of her sisters, and asked Shadia for money to travel to Rwanda. She refused to share phone numbers or addresses or the names of those with whom Shadia’s sisters were living. In our uncertainty, we at the Red Cross feared the possibility of an opportunistic stranger impersonating family and pressing for monetary gain (not, after all, an unknown exploit).
But we got lucky – the Burundian Red Cross had contacted a former neighbor who’d moved into the girls’ original home, and that kind woman knew where another of Shadia’s aunts – her maternal Aunt Betty, was living. She contacted Aunt Betty to tell her Shadia had long been searching for her sisters. Through a phone call, Shadia received the happiest, most exciting word that she had an aunt she’d never even known as a child, and not only that, all three of the missing sisters were there. But even so, Shadia wasn’t yet able to confirm things by actually speaking with her long-lost sisters.
Time for the American Red Cross Phone Project!
Robbe Sokolove and I went back to Shadia’s apartment, once again. This time, even that small room seemed to have bloomed together with Shadia’s spirits. Not only had it been furnished with a real bed, a beautiful desk, some comforts and curtains and brightness, but Shadia even had a laptop computer for schoolwork, and had found a job. With her teacher’s help, Shadia had obtained financial aid, and gained admittance to a college in Denver, where (she told us proudly) she was soon to begin studying aeronautics and pursuing her dream of becoming a pilot.
With a mix of hope and trepidation, we sat with her to place the call to her sister.
There they were! All three of Shadia’s sisters were living with their Aunt Betty, happy and healthy and each attending school. Shadia chattered joyfully with each of them in turn, beginning the process of re-connecting and catching up.
Shadia’s sisters were as happy to hear from Shadia as she was to hear their voices. And her family has now expanded to include her Aunt Betty. We could see the joy and excitement visibly radiating throughout Shadia’s whole being as they finally spoke together, after so many years apart.
Thanks to her teacher, the Red Cross, and her own strong will, Shadia’s future has been entirely changed – not only in the opportunities she has found here, but in the joy of reunion with her long-lost sisters and Aunt. No longer alone, no longer anguished, no longer destitute, the future for her looks bright, as bright as her eyes now shine when we see her.