It was 3:00am. My phone rang. I could barely make sense of the sound as it roused me from a deep sleep. I groggily answered.
“Julie? There’s an apartment fire in Hamilton.”
And with that, I was awake. I was the Volunteer Coordinator for our local chapter of the American Red Cross and that call mean that I needed to put some volunteers in action. I called Diane and Paul, two retired workers who were the most active responders on my emergency volunteer roster. They answered my call in the middle of the night, grumpily joked that “I owed them one,” and took the details of the fire raging in an apartment building. I didn’t have many more details than the address to give them, but they hung up and headed toward the fire.
Once there, they supported the firefighters, providing coffee, lemonade, and snacks to both the first responders and the families evacuated from their homes while the building burned. Our mobile unit had blankets, toys, and other basic essentials that would provide shelter and comfort until the fire was contained.
Diane and Paul asked nothing in return. These were amazing people who made themselves available whenever there was a crisis nearby; a fire, a flood, an evacuation at hand.
These are just two of the heroes that make up the Red Cross.
I share this story because that’s what the American Red Cross, as part of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is all about: people. People who come to the aid of strangers in need. People who give their time, energy, and compassion to those who are struggling. Heroes. Plain and simple. You can ask anyone who has ever interacted with the Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. They’ll tell you the same thing: these volunteers changed their lives.
I visited the Musee International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge while I was in Geneva. Not surprisingly, it is right down the street from the United Nations, where more tales of humanitarianism and human dignity are shared.
The Red Cross Museum is divided into three exhibits that center on three contemporary problems: defending human dignity, reconstructing family links, and reducing natural risks. Honestly, all three go hand in hand. The emotional toll these complex problems take on society are what the ICRC is trying to solve — one story at a time.
This museum is probably more interactive than any I’ve ever been to. As you walk in, you are greeted by a wall of holographic people waiting to tell you their tales. They are eerily real. Their eyes follow you. They nod slightly toward you, and they seem to breathe in and out, waiting to share their stories. These same figures are scattered throughout the exhibits, waiting for you to touch their hand, or sit in front of them so that they can tell you their tales.
It was really cool. I sat across from a woman whose island was decimated by drought and storms. As a result, they suffered severely from famine. The Red Cross came in and helped them plant food and engineer easier ways to get water. It save their lives.
This young Chinese schoolgirl talked about the earthquake that destroyed her village. Not only were there casualties and destruction that the ICRC could immediately help with, but the results of this natural disaster reached father than that. The schools were destroyed. Homes were destroyed. The Red Cross helped them rebuild and instituted new schools in line with the governmental education system. The ICRC helped these people rebuild their lives.
One man talked about stepping on a land mine and losing his legs. He couldn’t get a job. He didn’t have hope. The Red Cross helped him. Another tale was told by a young woman caught in the atrocities of the massacres in Rwanda. She lost most of her family members and was lost, trying to survive. She found shelter with Red Cross aides who then helped her connect with an aunt who could take her in.
All of these stories are so personal and meaningful. They are accounts of people facing unimaginable situations. It would be so easy to lose hope; so easy to succumb to desperation. And then, aid arrives in the form of humanitarian workers who suddenly recognize these people as individuals in need. They help them. They save them. They are the International Committee of the Red Cross, and I was privileged to once be a part of them.
Do you have a Red Cross story to share? Or was there a natural disaster they responded to that touched your heart? I can think of so many…
I thank the Museum for inviting me to come and bear witness to their humanitarian adventure.