Red Cross helps find a sister and best friend

After years of not knowing, a Minnesota couple from Cuba learn their beloved family member is alive and well

In one way, it took hardly any time at all to find Felipe’s sister in Cuba. Just months, in fact, once the Red Cross search formally started. In another way, it lasted years: Felipe lost contact with his sister Carmela in 1992 when he and his wife moved to Minnesota. Around that time, they exchanged their last letter with Carmela.

There was no phone number to call. More letters were sent. They received no replies. Maybe she was sick. Or worse. They assumed something bad had happened. This struck Nila the hardest. “I love her too much,” she says. For her, Carmela was more than her husband’s sister: Carmela was her sister, her family, her best friend.

Felipe and Nila left Havana in 1966 and moved to the United States where they joined her mother. Photo: Susan Bourgerie/American Red Cross

JoAnn, a long-time family friend in Minnesota, alerted Felipe to the possibility of working through the Red Cross to find Carmela. JoAnn knew that every day for years Felipe wondered about his sister. Papi and Mami are “like my parents,” she says.

JoAnn reached out through email to the Red Cross to learn more about family tracing. Once Felipe agreed to search, local volunteers moved the process forward, informing JoAnn, who updated Felipe. When she knew it worked – meaning, when she knew Carmela was found and, most importantly, alive – JoAnn went to Felipe and Nila at once with the great news.

Married 60 years, Felipe and Nila have 4 children, 12 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. For five years in Cuba, they went on dates always with a chaperone.

The first phone call was short. Felipe’s sister used a friend’s phone to reach him. Nila was on the call too.  They shared short phrases. Hardly said anything in word count. And yet the meaning of Nila’s basic words — my sister, I miss you, I love you – say everything. “Are you well?” Felipe asked Carmela. They’ve had several more calls and exchanged more email messages with JoAnn receiving and translating them.

Red Cross volunteer Kalay helped reconnect Felipe and Nila with their sister in Cuba. Photo: Susan Bourgerie/American Red Cross

“I appreciate the Red Cross,” says Felipe, who was excited and happy to learn that his sister was alive and well. His sister Carmela was excited, too. Her blood pressure went up, he says. They’ll have more calls, emails and letters. They’ll not lose contact again.

Story by Lynette Nyman / American Red Cross. To learn more about family reconnecting services, click here.

I Went to Cuba!

By Kathryn Schmidt/American Red Cross Volunteer

Cuban Red Cross (Cruz Roja Cubana) is one of 189 national Red Cross Red Crescent national societies around the globe. Photo courtesy of the author.
Cuban Red Cross (Cruz Roja Cubana) is one of 189 national Red Cross Red Crescent national societies around the globe. Photo courtesy of the author.

Few Americans can say that they’ve traveled to Cuba. I am one of them. One of our closest neighbors geographically, but a nation without diplomatic relations with the United States, travel to Cuba is limited for U.S. citizens. There are select organizations and professions that can obtain special permits for travel to Cuba. One such organization is where I work: Global Volunteers, which allowed me to take part in its Cuba People-to-People program in April. I was eager to meet the Cuban people, and learn something about their history, culture and lifestyle.

In the weeks before our departure, I learned that there was an opening in our schedule. I suggested to our group that we might visit the Cuban Red Cross (or Cruz Roja Cubana). After searching for a Cuban Red Cross contact via the American Red Cross national headquarters in D.C., my travel group wrote and received an email reply that our Global Volunteers group of sixteen Americans and one Cuban tour guide were welcome to visit the Cuban Red Cross headquarters in Havana at the designated date and time.

Our visit came on the third full day in Cuba. So, already we had seen how few goods were available to most people, how many lived in shabby housing, how they lacked resources to repair beautiful, but crumbling buildings since 1959, and how most people had warm smiles and expressed themselves through art and music. We hoped our presence would contribute to better relations between our countries in the future, and we knew our new Cuban friends hoped the same thing – they said so with words and hugs.

Red Cross volunteer Kathryn Schmidt (l) and Dr. Luis Foyo Ceballos, Director of the Cuban Red Cross (r) in Havana, April 2014. Photo provided courtesy of the author.
Red Cross volunteer Kathryn Schmidt (l) and Dr. Luis Foyo Ceballos, Director of the Cuban Red Cross (r) in Havana, April 2014. Photo provided courtesy of the author.

En route to our meet-up, I gave an introductory presentation about the Red Cross to our group comprised of people from Washington, Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona, and states in-between. My crash course included the story of Henry Dunant and how he founded the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the Geneva Conventions, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation (IFRC) and its 189 national societies around the world, and what our local chapters do to support the American Red Cross mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

Upon our arrival, Dr. Luis Foyo Ceballos, Director of the Cuban Red Cross, welcomed us. He gave a great presentation in Spanish, which our tour guide interpreted into English. At times, I was able to connect some of his presentation to mine for the group, especially regarding the 7 Red Cross Fundamental Principles and our work responding to natural disasters. I shared brochures and pins with our local Red Cross hosts. Then, we took a couple pictures together and parted with hearty handshakes.

To me, our visit was Red Cross neutrality and independence in action. Our two countries are about as far apart politically as two countries can be, and yet we talked in this place about our common pursuit of serving humanity with volunteers when disasters strike. Even though commerce is not possible, the American Red Cross was able to support the Red Cross disaster response to Hurricane Sandy in Cuba.

Before our visit, my group had seen stark differences between our countries. Now, we had experienced one humanitarian movement in two nations transcending political boundaries.

On May 8, people around the globe will celebrate World Red Cross Red Crescent Day. Click here to learn more about the Red Cross story and how you can share yours.