How one woman rescues refugees at sea

(My piece for ChimeforChange on the wonderful story of Nawal Soufi)

cavalli 3
Nawal welcoming refugees at the port of Catania. Credit: Salvatore Cavalli


How one woman rescues refugees at sea

Trying to get Nawal Soufi on the phone for a conversation is pointless: the line must remain available because there are people, by the thousands, whose lives might very well depend on accessing that number. People drafting on Mediterranean waves, lost at sea and to whom a call or a text to Nawal can (and often does) make the difference between making it alive and dying at sea.

When the screen flashes the international code +88, however, Nawal picks up immediately: it means that the caller is using a satellite phone. She then takes a deep breath and plunges into the frantic conversation – [how many?, is everyone fine?, text me your location! ]- that will hopefully lead to a successful rescue mission. When she has gathered all the information she could get, she calls the coastal guard’s central office, in Rome. Its operators never bother asking her for more credentials. Nawal’s name has become one in itself, and each call she makes triggers a prompt reaction: other calls are made, emergency procedures get started, boats and helicopters set off to fight the elements and rescue the human lives trapped at sea.

Her voice swings from that of a teenager’s silvery laugh to the deep, calm tones of a mature woman. But Nawal Soufi is only 27, she was born in Morocco  and moved to Sicily when she was a few days old. Her hometown, Motta Sant’Anastasia, lies just a handful of miles outside the seaside city of Catania, a baroque jewel capped by Mount Etna, the most active volcano in Europe. Nawal, who is fluent in Arabic and Italian, works as a cultural mediator and translator for the Court of Justice in Catania. Yet she is also a long time activist for the rights of homeless people, drug addicts, migrants, and refugees. At the beginning of 2011, during the Arab Spring, she reported the plight of migrants and refugees in Italy as a freelance journalist for Gerta Human Reports. The news agency is named after German photographer Gerta Taro, companion and professional partner to the celebrated Robert Capa and who was killed while documenting the Spanish civil war. It is during those months that Nawal took up the habit of recording every single abuse, emergency, human rights violation she bears witness to. A habit she has never dropped.

Since January 2015 and as of December 11th, 924.147 people have crossed the Mediterranean and an estimated 3670 died or went missing in the attempt, says the International Organization for Migration. The migrant crisis has engulfed all the European countries but Italy is at the forefront as one of the main entry gates from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. And Nawal with her old-fashioned cellphone has probably helped saved thousands of lives by now. Her direct contact circulates widely on Facebook pages andWhatsApp
groups. Refugees embarking on the perilous trip across the Mediterranean on makeshift boats carefully store her number in their mobiles. In Italy, her name is familiar to both the coastal guard, that she calls whenever she receives an SOS from a ship in distress [ “it happens every day, many times per day…“], and the railroad police, whose officers got used to seeing her welcoming refugees and migrants at Catania’s central station. She provides them with food and helps them board the right trains heading North without falling prey to the swindlers and smugglers who await them in dark corners and unknown alleys.

The wind of a revolution blows hard and runs fast, and initially everything may seem possible. On January 26, a civil uprising began in Syria, a country that since 1970 had been a one-party regime in the hands of the Assad dynasty. A series of peaceful protests took place in the main cities, and the world witnessed while hundreds of thousands of youth and citizens of all ages and classes marched the streets and squares demanding more freedom and an inclusive democracy.

Just like many onlookers, Nawal was captivated by the enthusiasm of her Syrian peers and spent days and nights chatting with them through Skype and social networks. It was during these thrilling times that she changed her Facebook nickname into “Syriahorra
“, Free Syria. In a few weeks’ time, these words of hope will turn into a cry for help.

Assad’s crackdown on the protests was swift and merciless and Syria was soon engulfed in a full-blown civil war. Now more than four years in, the conflict sparked what has been widely acknowledged as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, with an estimated half the country’s pre-war population – more than 11 million people – killed or forced to flee their homes.

From Italy, Nawal built a virtual network with more than 200 activists in Damascus and other cities. She also battled to sensitize her fellow Italian citizens to the fate of Syrian people. Every evening she went to Catania’s main square and organized public screenings of the videos she received from Aleppo, Homs, Hama, or Deraa. More and more people stopped by, captivated by her urgent speeches, and to discuss together how to help. The first “convoy for Homs” – a used-clothing and generic drugs drive – was born.

In March 2013, in Turkey, an ambulance packed with the collected drugs left for the Syrian border. Nawal travelled along, and after crossing into Syria, she visited her contacts in the city of Aleppo. The 17 days she spent there will change her forever. It was an unrelenting deluge of bombs – “one every three minutes” – that punctuated her stay. “Time flew slowly there. There were many silences, and many cups of tea, moments of suspension when you wouldn’t think about anything, you’d relax a mind weakened by so much insecurity, and the fear that that very same day could be your last.”

Nawal left Syria more determined than ever to be on the side of the victims. What she didn´t know yet was that the contacts she built throughout those first months of crisis and during her short visit would soon begin to spur life of their own. In August 2013, her cellphone ran, it was a distressed voice shouting for help in Arabic. “We are in the water, we see only sea around us, and the boat’s engine broke down.” It was the first of my calls to come, all desperate, urgent and with lives at stake. Nawal was unaware of the procedures yet, and after frantically contacting the coastal guard’s central office in Rome she realized that the only information which could save those lives drifting in the waves were a handful of numbers indicating the location of the endangered boat. She called the satellite phone back, and after a few hours the boat was rescued, everyone on board was safe.

This marked the beginning of a new journey. Nawal soon found out that a family who had travelled through Catania put her name on Facebook, writing that Nawal may be able to help, that perhaps they won’t be forced to communicate with the coastguards in a language they don’t understand. “The people calling me speak Arabic, and they are mostly Syrians. But in the same boat you might have, say, 50 Syrians and 200 Sub-Saharan Africans” she says.

Nawal also realized early on that she was not alone in her endeavor. “I have found a lot of solidarity and support from ordinary citizens, from the baker who donates bread every morning, to the restaurant owner who contributes with some of his stocks.” She relies on a network of volunteers that has grown in time, “but still, what we can do is just a drop in the sea. We can only alleviate the sorrow of those who reach our shores after losing everything they had.” Nawal doesn’t like to indulge in memories, but there is one in particular she cannot forget: “I met a man with his wife and four children, inside the train station in Catania. When he was about to board the train, he held me some keys and said: “I give you the keys of a house that doesn’t exist anymore, in a land I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to.” Nawal went back to my room and hung the keys on the wall. She’s still staring at them.

Over the last few weeks, she temporarily left Italy to be at the very frontline of the crisis: the Eastern shores of Lesbo, a Greek island off the Turkish coast that has seen an unprecedented influx of refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-torn, violence-stricken countries. Nawal left Catania around mid-October, together with a small group of volunteers and activists. They brought with them bundles of clothes and emergency items collected in Sicily, and started a fundraising through PayPal to keep the whole operation running.

Once in Lesbo, the group started distributing the goods to the freezing, soaked, and scared refugees reaching the shore after the 8-miles journey from the Turkish coast. “There is a spot where we stand at night and look at the laser signals from the boats heading our way”, she says. “We stay there all night long. When the boats come closer, we jump into the water and help people out. We give them water, food, and try to organize a lift to the shelters.” Nawal’s original plan was to stay in Lesbo for a maximum of two weeks. Forty days on, she is still there, her pleated eyes searching the horizon, ready to jump in the cold water and shout “Marhaban
!” Welcome!, to yet another dinghy struggling to reach the shore.

To learn more, read:
Nawal, l’angelo dei profughi
by Daniele Biella
Edizioni Paoline, Milano, 2015


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