Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Another unfortunate first

Every time I respond to a disaster, be it a single-family house fire here in Western New York or a massive response like Hurricane Sandy, chances are I'll see or experience something completely new. That's the nature of disasters: no two are completely alike, and yesterday was no exception.

Monday afternoon, fellow Disaster Action Team member Julie and I drove to the scene of a fire in Hamburg, Erie County. The fire department had already done its job, so we were looking at house numbers to find the correct location. As we pulled up, I said to Julie, "Oh man, it's the one with the 'sold' sign in front." As we began talking with the current resident, we found out he had just moved in and was still in the process of closing on the home. Thankfully, he and his son were not injured, but he was understandably devastated as the "perfect" home he had searched long and hard for was suddenly uninhabitable.

Thanks to your support, we were able to provide this man and his son with food and lodging so they could take a couple days to catch their breath, and the Red Cross will continue to provide support and referrals as they figure out the next steps in their recovery. As always, I am so proud to be a part of an organization that provides a glimmer of hope to people in their darkest hours.

This situation also proves that disasters are never convenient. They can happen anytime, anywhere, so please take the time to prepare now and keep your loved ones as safe as possible.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Tornado App "interruptions" can be life-saving

I was having a nice, leisurely Sunday dinner with the family yesterday afternoon when our meal was interrupted by a phone going off. Normally, I would be embarrassed to admit it was my phone that ruined the conversation, but not in this case. You see, it wasn't just a text or an email I was getting, it was a tornado warning alert from my Red Cross Tornado App, and it could have been a life-saver.

Because of my role with the Western New York/Finger Lakes Region, I have set my app to monitor all 17 counties that we cover. This alert did not affect Wayne County, where my family was enjoying dinner with my folks, so no action was needed on our part. However, had we been in Schuyler or Chemung Counties, we would've known it was time to take immediate action and head to the basement until the danger had passed.

This morning, the National Weather Service has confirmed that an EF-1 Tornado did touch down in Schuyler County on Sunday. Thankfully, the Red Cross has only been asked to help one family whose home was severely damaged in the Town of Reading, but this storm comes just a week our Central New York neighbors were devastated by a tornado that unfortunately claimed four lives in Smithfield.

Clearly, the danger of tornadoes is real for those of us in Western New York and the Finger Lakes, and the time to prepare is now. Please download the FREE Tornado App for your iPhone or Android device today and get real-time severe weather alerts and information wherever you currently are. Once you have the App, follow the preparedness tips it provides, things like putting together an emergency kit and creating a household plan. Then, should the tornado warning alert where you are--and trust me, no one will be upset about that interruption--you'll be prepared to keep your family safe.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Waking up the Dead" by Restoring Family Links

One of the perhaps lesser-known services of the American Red Cross is reconnecting families separated internationally. Like most of our services, this is done largely through the efforts of our incredible volunteers such as Mohamed Kissma. Prior to arriving in the United States nearly a year ago, Mohamed worked for the Red Cross Society in his native Sierra Leone. Now an International Services volunteer living in Rochester, Mohamed shared this uniquely personal account of helping a teen now living in Liberia reconnect with his native village:

There is hardly anything more painful than finding oneself in the midst of unfamiliar faces after having been separated from loved ones as a result a nerve-breaking circumstance. Some people could go on an empty stomach for hours or even days because of the grinding pain caused by having no immediate relatives, and in the worst cases no familiar face to turn to. This pain was a common experience Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and displaced persons went through during and after years of internal armed conflict. 

Warranted by this situation, the International Red Cross Movement stepped up to its international responsibility by facilitating restoration of family links (RFL) between separated families.

As an RFL caseworker, I completed my notes and proposed actions on each case planned for the following week on a Thursday afternoon and set off for Katanga village to deliver Red Cross Messages (RCMs). A five-year-old boy (now 17) left behind by his parents during a brutal invasion could remember his father’s nick-name and his birth village. The Red Cross registered and kept track of his movement for six months until he could finally put together the pieces of a heart-trembling experience 12 years ago. 

His father was killed during one of the attacks on the village. During this attack his elder brother and sister, ages 10 and 12 at that time, were conscripted by one of the fighting forces. They were later reported dead. The only surviving member of the family was the mother. She lived in a state of despondency in a one-bedroom mud hut on the outskirts of the village since she got back from hiding.

Like most villages in that region, it was the tradition of Katanga to perform sacrifice for the ‘departed’. In observance of this tradition, the community decided to perform a ceremony for her family on a Friday.

I got to this village the same day. On arrival, I went to the chief to observe the usual courtesies. He halted me a few minutes into the briefing. ‘Stop! Stop!’ he said. ‘This is meant for the ears of the entire village’, he jumped out of his seat.

This got me nervous and uneasy! It sent shock waves down my spine. The chief and his men marshaled me to a large gathering a few yards from his house, where the ceremony was taking place. In a split second we were surrounded by almost the entire village.

In a few more seconds a woman in her early fifties emerged from the middle of the crowd. In no time she became the center of attention. It became obvious at that point she was the reason for my visit. It was apparent from the tears raining down her cheek that she already knew about the boy's message.

The chief requested I deliver the message to the woman publicly, against the normal practice. Everyone present burst into tears. Tears of joy, I believe.

A few yards away from where I stood, I overheard an old man say, ‘Red Cross de gi life to die man’ meaning, ‘the Red Cross raises the dead’. No one imagined this could have happened because everyone believed the boy was dead. Receiving a message from him was like waking the dead from the grave.


Food was served and prayers offered for the late father, brother and sister. I collected the reply and took some pictures to deliver to the boy in a refugee camp in Liberia.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Living the American Dream

by: Veronica R. Chiesi Brown


I have always considered myself very patriotic. My father served in the Navy during Vietnam, my grandfathers served during WWII and my great uncle also served in WWII and was killed in action. Because of this we always had a flag flying in some capacity, we always knew to put our hand over our hearts for the pledge and we took our hats off for the pledge and or anthem. Our parents and their parents taught us to have pride and respect for our country. We realized as much as we could even at a young age the cost of freedom and how lucky we were.

One of those people today who has respect and appreciation for this country is Mustafa Almansur. Mustafa was born in Basra, Iraq. He served in the Iraqi military and later became a prisoner of war for 3 years. After that time he came to the United States, joined the U.S. Army and eventually made his way to Rochester where he owns his own convenience store. The Red Cross helped Mustafa obtain a Certificate of Detention which is the first step for him to receive reparations for the years he was a prisoner of war. He is among many Iraq refugees in the United States who have already received certificates. I met Mustafa and he is genuinely grateful for all the United States and the organizations within it have done for him. He understands how fortunate he is to live in a country such as this. He knows that he is in the best place possible. He knows he is home. (for more on his story: Red Cross - Greater Rochester Chapter or TWC News Mustafa Story.

We should all be more like Mustafa. I’m not saying our country is perfect because it isn’t. I am saying that it is OUR country and we should take pride in that. We should remember that the freedom we have is because so many before us believed so completely in this great country they died to protect it. 

So when you are having your picnic (please remember not to burn yourself with the grill – aka common sense) or swimming (remember all your swim safety rules) or watching fireworks (remember they are illegal in New York BUT just in case: July 4th Safety Tips) and or you hear the National Anthem,  God Bless America or another patriotic song, I hope you get the goose bumps as I do when I think about the great United States of America and how blessed we really are to live here.