Too Far from Home: Samuel’s Story

[Story written by AmeriCorps member Sarah Geurkink, International Services Coordinator]

Imagine you have been torn apart from everything you know and love. Your home is destroyed and your family is torn apart by armed soldiers. Now, years later, you wonder where your family members are, questioning if they are even alive.

For a large number of people in Grand Rapids, some version of this story is their reality. Just this year, Grand Rapids has welcomed over 500 refugees into the area. These people were forced to flee from their homes, leaving behind family and friends. Now, far away from that brutal reality, they are learning to deal with the past in a brand new place and life. What happened to their home? Their friends? Their family?

Your local American Red Cross chapter offers tracing services for these hurting neighbors to find closure in their questioning. International Family Tracing is a free service that helps refugees locate their missing loved ones. A chapter caseworker meets with the client and collects all relevant information about the sought person. From there, the case is sent through the service delivery chain, which goes through offices in Washington D.C., Switzerland, and finally, in the home country of the sought person.   The Red Cross also offers a messaging service, Red Cross Messages, which are delivered through similar channels to Family Tracing. Handwritten messages are delivered to family members with a known location in a foreign country. Because the Red Cross is so well known worldwide, it is possible to send a message to and from over 180 countries.

Photo courtesy of the ICRC

Four years ago, the American Red Cross of Greater Grand Rapids received a Red Cross message from Ethiopia. A man was trying to contact his brother, Samuel*, a refugee that had resettled in Grand Rapids. A volunteer caseworker scoured the city looking for Samuel and eventually discovered that he was enrolled at a local college. The caseworker located Samuel and delivered his brother’s message to him.

In a letter, the caseworker wrote about the search that Samuel had also been conducting for his brother. As they searched for one other, Samuel’s family here in Grand Rapids was “convinced he was dead, but they had one unanswered question—how did he die?” They were overjoyed at the news and message from this brother still in Ethiopia. Working with the volunteer caseworker that had delivered the message, Samuel had the opportunity to reply to his once-lost brother. He wrote about his joy upon hearing the news, “It’s nice to hear from you and I can’t wait to hear your voice on the phone.”

For the volunteer working on Samuel’s case, this was an equally rewarding experience: “Samuel is now a new person and the sorrow and agony that has lived with him for over twenty years is gone because his hope has been restored.” Through the research and dedication of volunteers on many levels of the International Red Cross & Red Crescent Movement, Samuel’s family was forever changed.

Samuel’s story is just one example of the great work being done throughout the Grand Rapids area. If you or someone you know would like to get involved in this life-changing process, please contact the American Red Cross of Greater Grand Rapids at (616) 456-8661 or visit us online at

*The names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the persons.


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