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A letter's long journey

She was just thirteen when she was separated from her loved ones during Burundi's civil war. Here's how an international Red Cross team helped Melania find her family 17 years later.

When Melania was only 13 years-old, she became one of hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the civil war which erupted in Burundi in 1993. Separated from her family, Melania fled across the border to Tanzania, and made her way alone to the Mkugwa refugee camp.

From the dusty camp, Melania began the search for her family but, despite her best efforts, she couldn't find any leads. "It was a hard life," she recalls. "I was an orphan, living by myself. I was frightened and I was lonely. I thought every day, what happened to them?"

After living in the refugee camp for 11 years with no news of her loved ones, Melania became eligible to migrate to Australia as a refugee in 2005. "When I got the news I was coming to Australia I was very excited. I didn't think it would happen-11 years is a long time to be alone," she says.

After arriving in Australia to a new life, Melania's happiness was bittersweet-she always wondered where her family were and what became of them. But not long after she settled in Shepparton, Victoria, Melania was put in touch with Australian Red Cross to continue the search for her family through the International Tracing Service.

The International Tracing Service is an entirely free service that helps families separated by war, conflict, disaster and migration to find their loved ones, re-establish contact or to clarify the fate of the missing. Red Cross' global network in 189 countries enables it to search for the missing all over the world and get messages to places where formal postal services don't operate, where telephones don't work and where others cannot go.

I am your daughter. We have been separated for a long time. I would like to hear from you. If you are alive, please let me know…

Melania gathered all the information she could about her family's possible whereabouts and met with Red Cross. Once again the search for her family began. To begin the search for a missing loved one, Australian Red Cross reached out to Burundi Red Cross volunteers who had an understanding of the local situation and could access hard to reach or remote areas.

Melania sent a letter and photo of herself to help them in their search. Her message was simple: "I am your daughter. We have been separated for a long time. I would like to hear from you. If you are alive, please let me know…"

Melania's letter made the long trip from her new home to the family's last known address in Burundi. Her family were nowhere to be found. But during the visit to the village that Melania once called home, one of the Red Cross volunteers discovered some new information. This news was just enough to lead the search back to where it began-Tanzania.

The letter and photo took another long journey where a third Red Cross team picked up the search for Melania's family. After further investigations, the search took the Tanzanian Red Cross to the Muyovozi refugee camp. And it was there-finally-that Melania's letter found its way into the hands of her mother and siblings They had been living just hours from the very refugee camp where Melania had spent 11 years alone. So close for so long but with no way to find one another.

After so long, that day was a miracle for me-a miracle.

Her mother responded immediately and a phone number was sent to Melania. For the first time in 13 long years, mother and daughter heard each other's voice. The joy of speaking with her family spurred Melania on to the next step in her quest: to reunite her family.

And after years of working tirelessly to make it happen, she finally saw her family again at Tullamarine airport: "We spent 17 years without seeing each other," she says "After so long, that day was a miracle for me-a miracle."

Now, Melania's home is warm and lively with the love of her children and family. They are a family once more.

The Right to Know: 100 Years of the Australian Red Cross International Tracing Service
From the battlefields of Gallipoli to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, from the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to current crises in Syria and Yemen, the Australian Red Cross International Tracing Service has helped thousands of people across the world reconnect with their loved ones.

To mark a century of this special service, Red Cross brings a free exhibition to Sydney after successful runs at the Immigration museum in Melbourne and the State Library of South Australia in Adelaide.

The Right to Know: 100 Years of the Australian Red Cross International Tracing Service highlights the history of the service and shares the heartbreaking and uplifting stories of some of those it has helped and will run at Blacktown Arts Centre from 21 June -16 September 2016. Find out more »

Find my family: the Australian Red Cross International Tracing Service
Australian Red Cross' tracing service is part of the International Red Cross Red Crescent global tracing network, which aims to help people find family and reconnect loved ones separated by war, conflict, disaster and migration.