Reuniting families in a war torn world

Posted on: 8th September, 2014

Category: Features

Contributor: Sheila Mullins

Every year, thousands of family members across the globe are separated by conflicts, disasters or migration. People suffer terribly when they lose contact with their loved ones and don’t know where they are or whether they are safe. National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies work together around the world to look for family members and restore contact, or to at least clarify the fate of those who remain missing. The Red Cross in Ireland, which is celebrating 75 years in 2014, has 14 members nationally who are specially trained in the Restoring Family Links programme*, including Lar McCarthy of Clonakilty Red Cross. Lar speaks to Sheila Mullins about his exciting and fulfilling role.


Lar McCarthy

Carolyn McGonigle

Carolyn McGonigle

Lar McCarthy joined the Red Cross just four years ago; he wanted to give something back to his community but wasn’t sure which organisation to join until a friend told him about the huge range of services the Red Cross provide.

“People think of the Red Cross as just providing First Aid but they do so much more,” he says. “Our aim is to help people in whatever way we can. When there are floods, snow or ice we are called out to assist emergency services and a recent water shortage in Rossmore had us delivering bottled water to residents.

“We also run a huge number of programmes to help people of all ages and circumstances, from hand care in hospitals and nursing homes to anti-bullying campaigns for young people to tracing missing families.”

Having first achieved a high level in emergency and cardiac first response training, this year Lar decided to train for the Red Cross Restoring Family Links programme. The programme is coordinated from Irish Red Cross Head Office in Dublin but relies on trained volunteers nationwide to meet and complete the relevant forms with people who have arrived in Ireland with no knowledge of the fate of their loved ones and need to access the service.

Lar completed the Restoring Family Links bookwork followed by a practical training weekend. As part of the practical training he had a chance to practice skills such as interviewing, completing a tracing form and map drawing all of which help to piece a person’s life story together. He also had training sessions on cultural awareness, psychosocial support and child protection. “You are interviewing people about the darkest time in their lives so you must be sensitive to what they are going through. You also have to be a bit of a Sherlock Holmes, teasing little details from them that could be vitally important to the search.”

Once the relevant forms are completed they are passed back to Irish Red Cross Head Office for registration and forwarded to the Red Cross/Red Crescent National Society in the last known location. A search is initiated based on the information supplied which sees local volunteers abroad checking locations in the community. Once the search is complete, the results are passed back along the chain finally reaching Lar who informs the people awaiting news of family members. Many tools are used in searching for missing relatives such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)/BBC missing persons programme broadcast on BBC World service and the ICRC’s family links website

Traces don’t happen overnight, sometimes taking over a year to complete even if they are successful. Lar regularly meets with people using the service but so far has had only one reunification – a Congolese couple that now reside in Clonakilty Lodge. “The case is never closed though,” he stresses. “The Red Cross has been running this programme since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. In Dublin, I learned about a man who survived a German concentration camp during World War II. Believing his wife to have died, he moved to the US and remarried. After 60 years his second wife passed away. Two years later the Red Cross finally found his first wife and reunited them. We never give up hope.”

Even if reunification is not possible, knowing the fate of a loved one – be it good news or bad – takes away the pain of not knowing. Lar has also trained in how to break devastating news to the people searching but so far has not had to perform this awful task.

In some situations the person is found but is still in a war torn country where normal lines of communication have broken down. The Red Cross also offers a messaging service to deliver personal or family news. “The Red Cross emblem is neutral and usually treated as such, which allows our members to safely go into a village and deliver the message,” says Lar.

Lar has found huge fulfillment in his work, “It’s nice to help somebody and I also find the various roles within the Red Cross interesting and sometimes exciting! I would encourage anybody to join, particularly young people. The skills you learn can be used throughout your life and career – they are very impressive on a CV – so you’ll also gain a huge amount from volunteering.”

The Clonakilty Red Cross branch is starting two new youth groups in September – the Teddy Bear Group for ages five and over and the Cadet Group for ages 10 to 17.Children and young adults can learn first aid as well as many other skills, while interacting socially with their peers. Parents are also invited to get involved by becoming leaders. For details contact Glynis on 087 7646059.

Everybody in the Red Cross is an unpaid volunteer but the Clonakilty branch rely on donations to run their training centre and two ambulances. An important source of funds is the donation they receive for providing first aid at events. To book an event contact John O’Carroll on 087 9060316

If you would like to find out more about volunteering with the Clonakilty Red Cross contact Carolyn McGonigle on 087 9276493. There are Red Cross branches all around West Cork. To find your local branch see

The Irish Red Cross Restoring Family Links service is a free and confidential service designed to enable members of dispersed and separated families to exchange news, to rediscover each other’s whereabouts and to be reunited. To contact the Irish Red Cross Restoring Family Links services please email or call (01) 6424600.


Tracing Case Study

In September 2013, Amira, an Afghan refugee recently arrived in Switzerland with her two daughters, was desperately seeking news of her husband and two sons. In search of a life that could be led in safety, the refugee family had fled Afghanistan into Iran, where they stayed for a while until able to continue their journey as far as Istanbul. Traffickers brought them to the Evros River – the border between Turkey and Greece – and loaded them with other refugees into rubber boats. At that point the family was separated and mother and daughters found themselves on one boat, father and sons on another. The water was rough and the boat with the men capsized. Amira could only watch helplessly. She made it to the other side with the two girls but the traffickers hastily pushed her and her daughters into a truck along with other refugees.

A distraught Amira told her story and showed her photos of her two boys, age five and eight to staff at the Swiss refugee centre. “She wouldn’t take her eyes off these photos and showed them to everyone,” recalls Jeanne Rüsch. “The discussion was difficult. She was in tears and begged us to find them, even if they were dead.”

After listening carefully to her story, Jeanne explained to Amira how the ICRC poster-tracing project worked. Pictures of people searching for family members are placed by Red Cross Societies on posters at special locations throughout 18 European countries. The photos are also displayed on, the ICRC’s tracing site. Amira immediately agreed to her picture being put up with all the others.

Happily Amira’s husband and two sons had somehow made it back to the Turkish shore and ended up back in Istanbul. He too did everything possible to find his wife. It took five months of perseverance, but finally, in March 2014, he saw Amira’s photo on the ICRC’s website and the couple were put in touch by telephone by the Red Cross.

Wonderful news but not the end of their troubles. Amira’s husband and sons cannot join her in Switzerland, as her status is that of an asylum-seeker, but at least now she knows they are alive.




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