Refugees Find Special Purpose Volunteering with the Red Cross

by Abi Weaver, International Services, American Red Cross

Elmuatz Abdelrahim, American Red Cross volunteer who immigrated from Sudan and now gives back to his new community by responding to house fires and other local emergencies. Photo Courtesy Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Each year, on June 20, we honor the thousands of volunteers and organizations that assist refugees worldwide. But rarely do we highlight the selfless contributions of the refugees themselves.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the organization mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect and assist refugees worldwide – suggests more than 11 million people will become refugees this year. More than half a million are expected to resettle in the US.

Most will be forced to leave their families behind and rebuild their lives in new communities and unfamiliar cultures.

“During their transition, thousands will choose volunteerism as a way to develop new skills and develop a sense of community,” said Kathleen Salanik, international family tracing manager with the American Red Cross.  “They give back to the same communities that offered them security, friendship and a home upon their arrival to the US. They return hope to families facing similar hardship.”

Many newly resettled refugees donate their time through the Red Cross because of its trusted reputation in their homelands, personal interactions while in overseas refugee camps and family tracing services available in the US. 

“(Refugees) have more trust in us,” said Elmuatz Abdelrahim, a Red Cross volunteer who immigrated from Sudan in May 2001. “In general, the refugee community is mistrustful of the authorities, and someone who speaks the language and looks like them is trusted more. They consider you part of their family.”

Elmuatz saw this firsthand when he was called to a duplex fire on one of Maine’s coldest winter nights. One family was not home during the fire, but arrived shortly after. To his surprise, Elmuatz knew the Sudanese family.

“In their time of devastation, me, someone they know was representing the Red Cross,” he recalled. “My being there was of great comfort to them; I could just see it. The fact that I was representing the Red Cross made them very proud.”

When María Luisa Vigier de Correa first arrived in Miami, after leaving Cuba under refugee status in 1962, she was met with a similar form of support. A group of teenaged volunteers with the American Red Cross served as greeters as families departed the plane. 

“I remember the first thing I got from (the volunteer’s) hands was a box containing toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, bandages, deodorant, soap … I still keep that box as the most valuable treasure that I would ever receive from the Red Cross,” she said. Today, María Luisa serves as a volunteer for the board of directors with the American Red Cross Puerto Rico chapter.

The following American Red Cross volunteers, who first came to the US under refugee status, have similarly powerful stories of connection to the Red Cross mission abroad and in their new communities as well as a commitment to serving other refugees and immigrants. To read thier stories click HERE.