What happens when the day you have spent years preparing for suddenly comes without warning?
In April, Red Cross volunteer Jorge Chele Santana was spending a peaceful afternoon with his father, wife and son.
Suddenly the ground shook violently and the family rushed outside. They didn’t realise at first that their home town of Manta, Ecuador, was near the epicentre of a major earthquake.
The city was hit hard and help was needed immediately.
“I remember calming down my 17-year-old son, who also happens to be a Red Cross volunteer,” Jorge said.
“I looked him in the eye and said ‘son, it’s time to show what we’ve prepared for, what we’ve been trained to do and remember why we are part of the Red Cross.’
“We put on our uniforms and immediately headed to the branch to get organised and start helping.”
Jorge and his son were two of the 2,419 Red Cross volunteers who joined forces to help in the earthquake.
Six weeks on, many people in Manta are still suffering, but for Jorge, the path to recovery is clear.
“As we say in my country: if you fall, get up, shake it off and start again.”
Seventeen million strong
Jorge and his son are two of over 17 million Red Cross volunteers around the world.
More than 13 million live in developing or middle-income countries such as Ecuador, giving the Red Cross unparalleled reach on the ground.
Many volunteers work in some of the world’s most dangerous places.
For example, neighbouring countries the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic have been caught up in what has been called “Africa’s World War” on and off for a decade.
Yet the Red Cross in the Central Africa Republic has over 12,000 volunteers nationwide and only 40 to 50 staff members.
Many volunteers provide services where there are no paid staff for miles around.
During recent brutal fighting, some volunteers even lived in the Red Cross Office for safety.
“Over a small period of time when the violence escalated, we saw the number of international organisations working here go down from 42 to just three or four,” one volunteer said.
“When the conflict was at its height, you only saw the UN, the rebels and Red Cross volunteers on the streets.”
Joel fled killing at home – now he saves lives
Father-of-two Joel Kambale fled the Democratic Republic of Congo with his family in 2006 because there was “too much fighting, too much killing.”
The family now live with 68,000 other refugees in Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania.
After getting support from the Red Cross, Joel became a volunteer so he could give something back.
Malaria is the biggest killer in the camp, mainly hitting children under five and new mothers.
To help save young lives, the Red Cross started a campaign to make sure that everyone in the camp received life-saving bed nets that help protect them against the killer disease.
Joel is now one of many hundreds of Red Cross volunteers helping with the project.
“I have received some training from the Red Cross since arriving here at the camp,” Joel says.
And, as a member of the refugee community, Joel can communicate with people in ways that they understand and listen to. This makes the campaign all the more effective.
Brotherly love crosses continents
This year, more than 48,000 refugees and other vulnerable migrants have arrived in Italy, fleeing violence and poverty at home.
In response, there are now up to 1,000 Red Cross volunteers in some Italian port cities to support them.
Salaymana, from Ghana, is both one of the new arrivals and one of the crowd of volunteers.
“Life should pass sweetly,” Salaymana says. “No one should have to flee and risk their life in search of a better future.”
Salaymana’s trip across the Mediterranean was not easy: four people died and the rest survived without food or water. Another boat travelling alongside his never made it to Italy.
“We arrived in Messina in Sicily in the middle of the night and the first people I saw were these guys with the Red Cross emblem,” he says.
Shortly afterwards, he got the sad news that his mother had died.
The dangerous journey and his mother’s death had a big impact on Salaymana. “When we arrived in Messina, I felt a deep pain. Red Cross people were my lifeline,” he says.
“When you are suffering so much, you need to distract yourself from bad thoughts. And these people did it: when they saw me alone, they came to have a chat, a laugh,” he says.
“We played and watched movies together and I felt better.”
After receiving so much support at the most difficult time of his life, Salaymana joined the Italian Red Cross as a volunteer to give something back.
Red Cross volunteers call Salaymana ‘brother’.
“I am very happy now,” Salaymana says.
“They are my brothers and the Red Cross is always in my heart.”
- Feeling inspired to volunteer for the Red Cross? Check opportunities in your area
- Support our Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal
- Support our Disaster Fund so we will be ready to help wherever and whenever we are needed
- Read more about Red Cross volunteers around the world
Photo credits: Miguel Cardenas/Ecuadorian Red Cross; Nelly Muluk/ IFRC; Melanie Caruso IFRC; IFRC