Dear Family members and Friends of my colleagues on Aquarius,
I know that some of you don’t understand why your loved one has chosen to disappear from your lives for several months to volunteer on a boat. I know that you’re worried that they aren’t earning money, aren’t pursuing their career goals, and seem to have done the modern day equivalent of joining the circus, but I’d like to provide you with some reassurance.
While working on Aquarius, a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea jointly operated by SOS Mediterranee and MSF, I’ve met some incredible people. They are your people. They arrive at the port full of energy, optimism and with the desire to improve the lives of others. Rather than sitting at home and hitting “dislike” on an article posted on Facebook, your loved one has decided that their life circumstances allow them to step away for a period of time and to focus on preventing people from drowning at sea. They come to Aquarius looking to contribute something concrete to the humanitarian crisis that is the Central Mediterranean.
In their day job, your loved one might run a night club, work on an oil and gas boat, or be an unemployed nurse, but on Aquarius, they are a part of the SOS Mediteranee or MSF team. Everyday, they wake up (often very very early after having gone to bed very late) ready to get on a rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) to stabilize a dangerously over-crowed boat, pull people from our RHIBs onto the Aquarius, translate for those we rescue, provide medical services, or document the horrors faced by our passengers for the world to see. They also hand out rescue kits, reassure the terrified, clean toilets, play with children, and perform tasks they never thought they’d do. Whether it’s the medic helping to fix a leaking toilet or the communications person helping with burns dressings, your loved one is being stretched and pulled beyond the confines of their usual world.
I firmly believe that everyone who comes onto Aquarius contributes uniquely, but even if that were not true, and even if your loved one turned out to be a completely useless crew member who did nothing more than sit on deck and chat with people, they would still be performing an important task: bearing witness. James Orbinski, former International President of MSF, said in his book An Imperfect Offering: “Humanitarianism is about more than medical efficiency or technical competence. In its first moment, in its sacred present, humanitarianism seeks to relieve the immediacy of suffering, and most especially of suffering alone”. Your loved one’s very presence helps strangers feel important, safe, and cared for.
Your loved one may return to you from Aquarius with a bruised and battered heart and mind that will take some time to repair. But the work your loved one has done is of monumental importance to people who stayed on Aquarius for a short time after being plucked from the sea. Your loved one may not have furthered their career and they certainly will not have built up their bank account but they have acted during a time of crisis in a way that few others were able to. Honour their commitment to bettering the world and praise their ability to put actions behind their beliefs. But more than anything, give them a giant hug and tell them that they are incredible, that you love them, and that they are safe because, in the end, I think that’s all any one in the world wants to hear. And in this case, it’s true.