As a cultural mediator during our first operation with the Humanity 1, Dounia, a Belgian lawyer, learned how much the question “How are you?” can mean for rescued people. Sea rescue does not only include rescuing people from distress at sea and providing medical care for the survivors. It is equally important to meet them with empathy and at eye level during their time on board. In the article published on the German media outlet Focus Online on Friday, 21 October 2022, she talks about her experiences:
For several years, I have been following the missions of civil search and rescue organisations in the Mediterranean Sea. I was amazed by the motivation and the work done by humanitarian organisations active in this challenging field. I admired what they accomplished,and was secretly hoping that one day I could embark onboard of one of these rescue ships. However, with my background as a lawyer, I always thought there was no role for me on board. When I finally understood that rescue ships do not only need rescuers and medical teams, I took the courage to apply to SOS Humanity and to put forward my social skills and previous experience with refugees.
I joined the crew of the Humanity 1 for its first mission in August 2022 as a cultural mediator. My volunteer role consisted of building trust among the rescued people towards the organisation. This involved creating a mutual bond between the survivors and the crew members on board.
Most of the people fleeing across the Mediterranean have been victims of massive human rights violations in Libya, where torture, abuse, misstreatment and sexualised violence are commonplace for refugees. For months or years, these people have immensely suffered, both physically and mentally. They were not treated as human beings. Every person I talked to on the ship described Libya as “hell on earth”, and while I heard the stories of our rescued people onboard, it was hard to realize the level of cruelty they have suffered.
For months or years, nobody cared about them.
They only faced violence and aggressivity. It is therefore important, when they arrive onboard, that they immediately feel an opposite experience, where finally someone cares for them, cures them and finally lets them rest. Several people told me that this was the first time they could actually sleep without being worried to be mistreated during the night, tortured or even killed. At last, they could let their body and mind go to rest.
Our first rescue took place at night. After embarking onboard, the survivors fell asleep in a second. The next morning, I spent most of my day checking on everyone and asking this simple question: “hey, how are you?”. I was not expecting people to answer this question, because I imagined that, deep inside, they were not feeling well and that many were traumatised by their experience in Libya, which adds to the burden resulting from the reasons they left their countries. But by asking this simple question, I was showing that I cared about them. For some, it was the first time in years that someone was asking them how they felt. And I could see their eyes brightening, as they were answering “I am fine!”.
This is such a short exchange, but it means so much. It means: from the moment we welcome you on this ship, we care about you. Not only do we provide you with food, clean clothes and a place to sleep, but we really care about how you feel.
Once we rescued more people, my role was also to ensure a good cohabitation between all communities onboard until disembarkation. We rescued 414 individuals from diverse ages, religions, backgrounds, cultures, coming from many different countries (Bangladesh, Cameroon, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria). Everyone who has been rescued embarks in a state of high stress, exhaustion, often trauma and/or sickness. In this context, imagine daily life with such diverse communities on a 60m long ship, with no privacy, after having lived probably one of the most traumatic experiences of your life.
While my task on deck was challenging of course, I witnessed many beautiful signs of respect and cultural humility.
For instance, several days after our first rescue, we prepared for a second rescue operation. This is a critical moment when we must explain to the first survivors onboard that we will welcome more people on the ship impacting the comfort, calm and space of the first group. After this second rescue was accomplished, at the time of the food distribution, the first group of rescued people did not join the queue but let the new group line up first. When I asked the first group why they were not queuing for the food, they answered, talking about the second rescue, “they are our guests here, they should eat first”. I was very touched by this generous act of humanity.
A few days later, we brought a djembe, a west African drum, on deck as the days at sea were becoming boring and increasingly difficult while we had to wait for a place of safety to disembark. People do not understand why we have to wait for so many days and weeks although the Italian shore is close. This so-called stand-off is a time when the tension on board can easily rise. We are trying to prevent that by involving people in some activities which is not easy on a ship with hundreds of people on the deck. Regarding the djembe drum, a group of people from Gambia proved to greatly master the instrument. They played, sang and danced lively. They showed and shared with us their culture and they managed to steal a smile from pretty much the whole crowd. People from Bangladesh were also observing the scene but were not familiar with the djembe until the Gambians strongly encouraged them to come and dance with them. It was a beautiful moment where finally everyone could release all tensions and dance to put aside for a moment the awful things they had experienced. To watch people coming from such different backgrounds dancing together, on a ship in the sea, in the middle of nowhere was a moving experience. I felt that at a time when conflicts are increasing everywhere in the world, it was a gift to witness communities being so tolerant and open towards each other.
These six weeks onboard of the Humanity 1 were definitely an experience outside of the ordinary. As a European citizen, I truly hope that during this period I succeeded in welcoming these people in distress with the dignity, respect and protection they deserve.