Search & Rescue: 'Imagine what these women could accomplish'

Sarah is a doctor on board the MV Aquarius, a search & rescue vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, which is jointly operated by MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE. She blogs about the women she meets on board the ship, and considers the journeys they have faced to get there...

Imagine going into a situation where you knew there was a high probability you would likely be raped repeatedly.  

In fact, imagine knowing that the risk of rape was so high that you would get an injection of long-acting birth control to try to make sure that the rape(s) didn’t result in an unwanted pregnancy.  
Many of the women I meet have been sold into prostitution.  Imagine that the ideal ending of this story is that you would end up on a  boat with a reported 1 in 19 risk of drowning.  
Now imagine the above with a child or two in tow.  
This is the reality that many of the women I meet on the MV Aquarius are facing.
Women on board the Aquarius

Women on board the MV Aquarius. Photo: Anna Psaroudakis / SOS Mediterranee

Yesterday I met a young woman who had strange burns on the hands – the burns were in a pattern that led be to believe they have been deliberately inflicted.  Fearing there was something more to her story, I brought her down to the clinic to have a more private conversation.  
Through our interpreter, the young woman told me that she had burnt her hands while in Libya. When I gently probed further, more of her story came out.  
She had been living in Libya in a house with many people when a group of men stormed in.  During the ensuing violence, her husband and aunt were killed.  She and her younger sister survived the initial attack, but the men then began to burn her and raped her sister.
In a desperate attempt to flee, the young woman threw herself out a window and hurt her wrist in the process.
I have two sisters and I dreaded the answer to my next question: “where is your sister now?”  
With tears welled up in her distantly staring eyes, she quietly replied: “I don’t know.  They kidnapped her.  That was three months ago.”  She didn’t know any one on the boat and she was travelling alone. She seemed completely lost.

They dream of being reunited with their family members in Europe. They dream of escaping persecution. They dream of sending their children to school and money to their families at home.

The passengers we pick up at sea are running from such horrendous conditions that paying for a dangerous boat crossing is a better choice than staying in their home country or Libya. That deserves pause for thought.  
The women I have met hold such hope for the future. They dream of being reunited with their family members in Europe. They dream of escaping persecution. They dream of sending their children to school and money back to their families at home.  
A woman and her baby look out the porthole of the Aquarius

Photo: Yann Merlin / SOS MEDITERRANEAN

They rarely, if ever, talk about dreams for themselves as most of them have mortgaged their financial futures to pay off the debts incurred during their flight across the African continent to the Libyan shores of the Mediterranean.  
If they can’t find a way to pay off their debts with money, there is a real risk that they might be forced into prostitution. There is little I can do but be bearer of bad news, warn them of the dangers ahead and pass on the contact details of organisations in Italy who may be able to help them. 
Despite their tenacity and strength, I worry for these women.  
Their journeys are so fraught with horror that I fear that their resilience will eventually run dry.  I fear the realities they will face upon arrival in Europe and cannot bear the thought that some of them will be sent back to their countries of origin.  
I can’t stomach the idea that the months to years of perilous travel, sexual violence, domestic servitude, fear, and financial ruin may be for nothing.  

These amazing women could add so much to other countries if they were given the chance

It is indeed ironic, that the women I meet on the Aquarius are the lucky ones.
They are the survivors.  
Uncounted women die daily in their quest for a better life.  These amazing women could add so much to the fibre of other countries if they were given the chance.  I dream of a time when they will be able to pursue their dreams in a safe and legal manner by applying on paper or by computer rather than risking their lives to climb walls built along borders and through oceans.  

 I remind her that the path ahead will be very difficult, but that is nothing new to these women 

Imagine what these women could accomplish with their fierce determination and tenacity if they didn’t have to spend it on surviving?  
When I have finished a particularly difficult meeting with a patient on the Aquarius, I ask her to look to the future and think of what she would like to become. I remind her that the path ahead will be very difficult, but that is nothing new to these women.  
I celebrate the fact that they have survived to this point and remind them that having overcome huge hurdles in the past and that the strength they have acquired will take them far.
I tell them with sincerity: “I cannot wait to see the gifts you will share with the world.”