Why Am I Here?

10 May 2015

So far in this MSF mission in seven days we've assisted 692 people to continue their time on this earth, for better or worse. Too many are dying, just trying to live.

May 7th early afternoon waves sloshed aboard the Phoenix in places I’d never seen before and the sea-state made for a difficult rescue. We’d quickly located the wooden craft, actually fourteen nautical miles away from the location coordinates provided by the Rome Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. There was a dramatic couple of meters of vertical movement between the rescue-boat and the side of the vessel in distress, as it pitched and wallowed in the swell. Thanks to the skill and scrupulous timing of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) search-and-rescue team, 118 souls were finally brought on board the Phoenix without incident.

Many of our new guests had their own lifejackets, and a few even warm jackets and knapsacks of belongings and supplies. Several were wet though, shivering and disoriented on the continuum of significant hypothermia. Probably a third were near-green seasick, requiring assistance to stagger to their places. Twelve shivering children were quickly bundled into our clinic with its extremely effective heater. Sea-sickness medication was liberally dispensed.

Before long the rear lower deck of the Phoenix formed a human map about nine meters by ten comprising sub-groups of Syrians, Nigerians, Somalis, Sudanese, Ghanaians, Eritreans, Bangladeshis, Lebanese, and Gambians. We then motored directly east three hours to uneventfully transfer another 101 migrants on to the Phoenix from an Italian Coast Guard vessel, over a much calmer sea. En route when I explained to one of our other passengers where we were going, she said “Thanks God, Thanks God.” The new arrivals received an initial medical assessment and blankets, water, and food. And now May 8th finds us on our way north to Augusta, Sicily to disembark, regroup, resupply, and I guess do it again. And again.

You can check the website http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/details/ships/7234272 for our current location, but it won’t tell you anything about the lives of the 219 souls recently on board, or why I’m here. About the Somali woman with a bullet still in her belly from time in Libya. “They are animals, and treat you worse”. About unjustified, arbitrary time spent in Libyan jails by countless numbers of people, beaten for merely having bouts of diarrhea, and extorted for all the money one’s family could muster. About having your family in fact exterminated in front of your eyes, and fleeing Somalia along with so many others, escaped child soldiers, growing older fast in the chaos and cruelty of current-day Libya. Having scabies so bad it all gets infected and scabby in your groin, over the scar from the blast wound anyway. What the hell is this?

Why am I here? “What made you decide to do this?” the media interviewers ask. Those are different and difficult questions. It’s unsatisfactory to reply I’ve been very fortunate in my life so far, that it’s easy to have an opinion or make a donation, but I wanted to give my time. Or that I’d volunteered to go anywhere with MSF, without reservation, and they chose me for this mission. It has more to do with these people and their stories, and what needs to be done. It’s definitely not about simply rescuing them from dehydration, hypothermia, and drowning, but sharing one’s humanity, witnessing their emotional gashes, and listening to their stories. Giving a damn. About a couple of young men in the clinic, quietly weeping, telling a tale I can’t imagine living.

I can’t adequately explain my reason for being here. But it’s quite sufficient.