To the woman sitting on the shores of Libya waiting to cross the Mediterranean: what are you running from?
I am sitting on the deck as the MSF Dignity 1 boat pulls out of the harbour in Malta for the next search and rescue operations. I am both excited and nervous – and, as always, when starting a new position, a little terrified.
We will arrive in the Search and Rescue zone (international waters off the coast of Libya) in about 20 hours if everything goes well.
I am thinking about the mission and my responsibilities as one of the two nurses on board and for the millionth time - how incredibly lucky I am to be living my dream of working for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
I’m running through situations that may arise medically and doing a play by play of what I will need to do to respond. How will we manage a mass casualty situation? What if a pregnant woman goes into labour? Did I check the vaccination fridge this morning? I go over the medications in the resuscitation kit and how I will administer them if needed. I make a mental note to go over the protocols for everything one more time, and write a list of topics to review.
I push away the far-fetched fear of our boat capsizing or my top bunk crashing down on top of my room-mate in the middle of the night as the boat rocks, sometimes violently with the waves. I start to feel a bit panicked thinking of all the “what ifs” and have to remind myself (because I’m a massive chicken) that I am safe and will in all foreseeable likelihood, remain so.
As I relax into this thought of safety, and the comfort it brings me, it leads me to thoughts of the people we will encounter in the coming days- those who are continuing a dangerous journey to reach the perceived safety of Europe and who cannot be as assured of their safety as I am.
I am thinking about a woman who is probably sitting on the shores of Libya at this moment waiting for her turn to attempt to cross the Mediterranean; maybe she is locked in a house and cannot leave in the meantime. Maybe she is thinking of the family she left behind or who did not survive the trip to or stay in Libya. Maybe she is nursing a wound inflicted on her by the individuals running prison houses or smuggling rings – those she who are supposed to "help" her reach Italy, but are abusive and inhumane instead. I can only assume she is scared, nervous, and maybe a little excited as well. Certainly she is unsure about the voyage ahead.
I wonder how much she knows about the journey. Does she know that, as a woman, she will likely be shoved into the hull of the boat, which the passengers consider the safest place on board, but where the heat is suffocating and there is little oxygen. I wonder if she knows that it is impossible for the small wooden or rubber boat she is going to board in Libya to actually make it to Italy. They will not be supplied with enough food, water, or fuel to even give them a chance.
Surely she knows that hundreds have died in the same pursuit just this year alone. I cannot imagine how it feels to know this and still be so desperate as to attempt the trip anyways.
I know what she is running towards: Europe, safety, an opportunity at a better life. But I wonder what she is running from.
I have read so many interviews and heard so many stories from the medical team since I boarded the ship. Stories of war, rape, slavery, unjust imprisonment, inescapable poverty and lack of access to basic medical care and I get emotional thinking about the journey she has surely been on and the perilous one she still has before her.
I am certain she hasn’t had the opportunity for a nutritious and filling breakfast, or to exchange text messages with her loved ones this morning, as I did. I know that her excitement and nerves come from a different place than mine and as I always try to do when considering these inequalities, I acknowledge the incredible privilege of my position.
For as long as I can remember I have been intrigued by the effects of war, poverty, and social injustice on the people who live it. As a (probably) slightly odd child/teen I was enthralled by other cultures and devoured books on the underground railway, wars, revolutions, genocides, and the resistance movements - inspired by those who overcame overwhelming odds to improve their lives. I knew these things had happened in far-away places and that wars and injustice raged on around the world, but felt safe growing up and knew I was fortunate.
I have not had a trial-free life, but I think it is safe to say that even in the toughest moments, due to my childhood reading materials, I have always been acutely aware that I won the life lottery. To be born healthy, to a family that loves me, in a relatively safe and free country means that I am already amongst the luckiest of people in this world.
I have not one, but two passports that allow me to travel around the world with ease, never nervous to go through customs, or afraid of being denied entrance to a country.
It’s a privilege that when I accidentally pass through airport security with a pair of large scissors in my carry-on and a litre of sunscreen (oops…) that the security guard glances at me, and says, “You don’t look like a…a person who would do any harm - just put them in your luggage next time”. I can fill in the blanks where his voice trailed off and know that I was just given the benefit of the doubt where so many people would not be and it makes me uncomfortable.
It is a privilege that I wrestle with and try not to squander as I come face to face with so many who have not been so lucky. I am well aware of the fact that this is not something I have earned or deserve any more than the next person. It is just chance.
I understand that life is not fair, but I do not and will not accept it. I am grateful that I work for an organisation like MSF that provides me with a way to fight this injustice and encourages me to advocate for the vulnerable - in this case for the woman sitting on a beach in Libya, waiting to board a boat, whose story I do not yet know and whose wounds I may not be able to see, let alone treat.
So as I feel the wind on my face and the excitement, fear, and nerves of my first sailing with the Dignity 1, I keep this woman in my thoughts. I wish her safety as she boards an overcrowded dinghy, without a life vest, and I hope that we get to her before it sinks, before she asphyxiates, or is injured. I know her life, thus far, cannot have been easy and I hope she is met with kindness and security on her voyage across the Mediterranean and to a new life.
I wish I could speak with more certainty about her future as our boat inches towards the rescue area, but the one thing I know for sure is that the MSF crew on board the Dignity 1 will be looking for her and ready to help when, or if we find her. I hope we do.
All photos: Courtney Bercan / MSF.
Update: In 2018 MSF was forced to cease its search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, after a sustained campaign by European Governments. Find out more here.