Reuniting Forcibly Separated Families: Insights from Program Coordinator Emelie Viklund, Border Team

July 25, 2023

Q: Can you give us some background on your work helping families reunify?

Emelie: I worked with KIND’s Family Reunification team for one year as a Family Reunification Supervisor before I moved to my current role with KIND’s border team.  

I remember very clearly when I started. Towards the end of my first day, after I had been assigned a caseload of about 10 separated families, I asked, “Okay, when do you expect me to start calling families?” My supervisor said, “It would be great if you could start calling tomorrow.” I said, “Okay, great, let’s go!” Thanks to my previous experience — I’ve been working in the field of migration for a number of years now — it was not really a challenge. I dove right in.  

Q: Can you share a story of a family you helped reunite? 

Emelie: This was one of the first calls I made that second day. That’s partly why it really stuck with me. The case was a Honduran family in which a dad had been separated from his daughter. We had a bit of information on the case. I had the dad’s name and phone number and his daughter’s phone number, which was unusual. We rarely have this information about a family. 

The daughter was in Houston by herself, and her parents were in Honduras. I tried calling the parents first and didn’t get an answer, so I tried contacting the daughter. I said, “Hi, this is Emelie from KIND, we’re working on family reunification. It’s a new program from the U.S. government,” and I explained a little bit about the program. She seemed really interested. As we spoke, she almost started crying. She said, “Oh my God, there’s nothing I want more in the world than to reunify with my parents. I miss them so much.”  

She was about 18 by then, but she was really suffering from being separated from her parents. She’d lived her last teenage years away from them, which was hard for her. I thought, we can help this family. We can really help them because she wants to do this. And I didn’t see any reason why the case wouldn’t go ahead. I shared a little bit more about the program, but she also had some resistance. I could sense so much fear. She wanted to reunify but she was scared since it was such a new and unfamiliar process.  

We spoke many times over a period of about a month. I also tried to reach out to her dad in Honduras. The girl’s mother was picking up the phone and always said that the dad was working in the fields.  I sensed that there was fear, but at the same time, a very strong will of really wanting to see each other. I worked on this case for a month, back and forth, speaking to mom, on and off, speaking a lot with the girl in Houston. As we texted, she kept saying, “Yes, I want do it.” And when I tried to call her, she wouldn’t pick up. When she answered again, she said, “I’m so scared.”  

And then I thought, I’m going to leave them alone for a bit. After about a month or two, I reached out again and I said, “Hey, remember me? Have you thought about this? What do you think?” And she said again, “Yes, I want to do this. I want to see my parents.” But she was still scared. But I thought to myself, “I really want to get this case!” 

I finally had to tell her, “For now, I’m going to mark your case as no, as in, not interested. You can always reach back out if you change your mind and want to go ahead.” 

I did not call her for a few months. As our team reached back out to families who initially expressed hesitation and distrust in the program, I contacted them one more time. And the girl and her family were finally ready! At that point too, there was much more public information available about the family reunification program and how it could work. I shared a lot of articles with her, stories about reunifications, and new information that we didn’t have at the beginning when I was first contacting her. Also, the U.S. government had created the website for family reunification, and they were uploading documents about successful reunifications. This helped the family feel safe about the process and trust in it.  

I had a joint call on WhatsApp with mom, dad, and daughter. They had many questions. It was so nice to finally talk to them all and give them answers.  

I registered them on the website. I regularly checked in with the family, making sure that everything was going ok. The case seemed to be moving smoothly.  

One day, I get a WhatsApp call from the daughter in Houston. I hope everything is okay. She tells me that she is at the airport waiting for her parents, but it sounds like she is panicking. She says, “My parents are coming now, but the terminal is closed, and I can’t get there.” She said that she was calling them and that they were not answering. I explained that their phones would not work in the United States and that they would be with her soon. “Take it easy,” I tell her, “It’ll be fine. We’ll work this out.” I look up the airport and see that only departures are closed. I tell her where to go. I suggest she get a Coke, sit down, and take it easy.  

I realized she just needed someone to talk to and reassure her during this emotional time. I was very glad that I was that person. 

About two hours later, she sent me a picture of her parents arriving at the airport. I was relieved and overjoyed!  

Q: How has this work impacted you? 

Emelie: I’ve often said that in the migration field in Mexico, a lot of us are not fortunate to work on programs that have a positive impact or where you can really see a positive impact very quickly. Having been five years in the south of Mexico where many start their journey, it was very hard to see that there would be any positive impact anytime soon in their lives. I’ve seen women arriving right after suffering from an incident of sexual violence, people coming out of a kidnapping with bullet wounds in their legs, and people coming to the shelter after having been assaulted.  

Going from that to having the opportunity to work on a program like family reunification and the border team, seeing the beauty of the closing of the journey on the northern border and family reunification has been a wonderful experience. The first thing many families do when they arrive in the United States is share photos of the family together again. I feel so fortunate that we are helping families and changing their lives for the better.