Refugee gets word of sister and mother 35 years later

Monday, January 5, 2004

J.B. FORBES * St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Maria Tanqua, 24, left, sat with her mother, Domingas Laura Nassar, 45, in St. Louis. Tanqua recalls the phone call she received recently from the Red Cross asking her if she knew Domingas Tangua, which was her mother's name before she got married. The Red Cross told Maria that they had a message from her aunt in Angola. Nassar hadn't heard from her sister for more than 30 years and assumed they were dead.By Phillip O'Connor ~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS -- The message reached across more than three decades of separation and allayed the worst fears of Domingas Laura Nassar while raising new ones. It was handwritten in Portuguese on a 5-by-7-inch card.

"This is your sister. We've been thinking about you. Your mother is thinking about you and praying for you. She's sick. The family is not doing well."

They were the first words Nassar, 45, had received from her immediate family since she'd fled war-torn Angola as a teenager in 1976. She eventually settled in St. Louis.

"I remembered having a mother and a father and a sister," Nassar said while sitting in her comfortable second-floor apartment. "Then comes a time when you don't have anyone. You don't know if they are all dead. That was very hard for me. I wanted to know what happened."

The message came courtesy of the American Red Cross as part of a program to connect relatives separated by war, civil disturbances and refugee movements. In 2000, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the American Red Cross handled more than 1,761 new requests to locate people who had been separated from their relatives in the United States. Of those, the American Red Cross located 538 people.

Kathryn Lass, director of International Services for the St. Louis-area chapter, said she has delivered about 20 such messages in the past year.

"This is the up part of the job," she said.

In March, Nassar's younger sister, Margarida Chipuco, approached Red Cross officials in Angola about finding her sister. The search led them to St. Louis, where they found a phone book listing for the younger of Nassar's two daughters. Maria Tangua, who had retained the family name, received a call from the Red Cross. She in turned called her mom, who broke into tears at the news.

Nassar was only 9 years old when she left her family to work as a nanny for a Portuguese family living in a nearby city. Her mother would visit on occasion. Other times, Nassar would return home on vacations.

In 1976, fighting broke out in the city, and the Portuguese family fled the country. Knowing it was too dangerous to travel through the countryside to her home, Nassar, then 16, joined the flood of refugees seeking shelter in neighboring Namibia. She then lived for several years in Botswana before being admitted to the United States as a refugee in 1982.

She tried unsuccessfully over the years to reach her family. In the late 1980s, she heard from a distant cousin who told her that her father had died. But they lost contact and Nassar heard no more news.

Her great hope now is to reunite with her family. But money for travel is tight.

"I want to see my mom," she said. "I love my mother very much. I never forget the love of my mother. I love her. This is what war does."

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