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Liberia/Côte d'Ivoire: a phone call home makes the day

24-03-2011 Feature

Basile, 16 years old, is one of thousands of Ivorian refugees who have arrived in Liberia in recent weeks. He has no news from his mother in Côte d'Ivoire. The ICRC and Liberian Red Cross volunteers help children who lost contact with their parents while fleeing to get back in touch with their families.

Basile was on his way to school with his cousin Eric, 20, when they heard gunshots and fled to the forest. For two weeks, they lived on bananas and other fruit they could find. Eventually they found their way to Liberia to a transit camp for refugees in Karnplay, Nimba County.

"You haven't seen her?," says Basile using a satellite phone. He calls his guardian in Côte d'Ivoire asking for news about his mother and five siblings. Unfortunately, no one knows where they are. "Don't worry Basile, we will keep on trying to get news from your mother," says Albert Sheldon, a tracing field officer for the ICRC.   

Apart from Basile, the ICRC and over twenty trained Liberian Red Cross volunteers have been busy in all border communities and refugee camps assisting children who don't know the whereabouts of their parents or caretakers.

Experience from the long years of conflict in Liberia

Princeton Kwahmie, 52, is one of the most experienced tracing volunteers in the Liberian Red Cross. During the Liberian conflict between 1989 and 2003, he helped his displaced compatriots restore contact with their families. Now Princeton serves Ivorian refugees in the Bahn refugee camp.  

"The newly arrived refugees have a great more need to restore family links than the ones who came before. We have collected many more Red Cross messages for their loved ones in Côte d'Ivoire. Refugees write notes to their family members to tell where they are and how they are coping. They also ask for news about the loved ones they have had to leave behind," explains Princeton.

Red Cross messages are collected by the ICRC or the Red Cross volunteers and are sent to Côte d'Ivoire via the ICRC. Volunteers of the Ivorian Red Cross then try to find the recipient of the message, collect a reply and send it back to Liberia via the ICRC. If the recipient is not found, the message is sent back to the sender with an explanation.

Vital news by phone

Another service the ICRC offers is to restore family contacts through satellite or mobile phone. In Liberia, refugees have very limited access to electricity and cannot recharge their mobile phones. The ICRC has so far facilitated over 350 phone calls.

Among them is a 90-year-old lady who is thankful she could reach her son in Côte d'Ivoire. "Before I heard from my son, I couldn't eat nor sleep. But now that I've talked to him, I'm very relieved."

For Basile and many other children, the search for parents continues.  


Photos

Refugee transit camp in Karnplay, Nimba County. Albert Sheldon, an ICRC tracing field officer, listens while Ivorian refugee Basile, an unaccompanied child, calls Côte d'Ivoire in an attempt to find out where his mother is. 

Refugee transit camp in Karnplay, Nimba County. Albert Sheldon, an ICRC tracing field officer, listens while Ivorian refugee Basile, an unaccompanied child, calls Côte d'Ivoire in an attempt to find out where his mother is.
© ICRC / N. Kero / lr-e-00496

Nimba County, Liberia. Ivorian refugee Rebecca, who was separated from her parents, writes a Red Cross message with the help of ICRC tracing field officer Fred T. Tosah.  

Nimba County, Liberia. Ivorian refugee Rebecca, who was separated from her parents, writes a Red Cross message with the help of ICRC tracing field officer Fred T. Tosah. Julianna (on the left) was also separated from her parents while fleeing fighting in Côte d'Ivoire. They are now both living with a Liberian host family in Buutuo town.
© ICRC / N. Kero / lr-e--00489

Bahn, Nimba County, Liberia. Princeton Kwahmie, a highly experienced Liberian Red Cross tracing volunteer, is pictured here in the Bahn refugee camp.  

Bahn, Nimba County, Liberia. Princeton Kwahmie, a highly experienced Liberian Red Cross tracing volunteer, is pictured here in the Bahn refugee camp.
© ICRC / N. Kero