In the early hours of January 5, 28-year-old Nawal Soufy received a voice message on her mobile phone. “Help us, we are sinking,” it said.
She forwarded the message to the Italian, Greek and Turkish coastguards but got no reply.
It had been left by a 32-year-old Syrian refugee called Ayman who was aboard a small boat that had set sail from Didim, on Turkey’s southwest coast, and was heading for the Greek island of Farmakonisi, about 20km away. The boat never made it and Ayman was among the 34 – mostly Syrian and Iraqi – men, women and children who drowned off Turkey’s Aegean coast that night. Many more have perished attempting the crossing from Turkey to Greece.
But Nawal, an Italian-Moroccan who has acquired the nicknames “Mama Nawal” and “Lady SOS”, is determined to do all she can to stop that happening to others.
Since she travelled to the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo to deliver humanitarian aid in 2012, she has become a reference point for many of the refugees fleeing that war-torn country.
Her telephone number has been passed from one to another with the message and in the hope that she might be able to help those who find themselves in the most desperate of circumstances.
Her mobile phone rings almost constantly, night and day. The majority of calls come from people stranded at sea. Some are aboard small dinghies; others are on larger boats with no crew. All of them need help.
Saving refugee lives
Nawal used to live in Sicily, where as a translator and interpreter for the Italian coastguard she was able to help refugees. But since October 2015, when thousands of refugees began reaching the Greek islands daily, she has been moving between the islands of Lesbos, Kos, Quios and Samos.
She initially moved to the Greek islands to see the unfolding humanitarian tragedy with her own eyes. But she didn’t just want to be a witness to it; she wanted to help.
When she receives a call, Nawal alerts the coastguard, providing the co-ordinates of the boats in need of help. She then runs to the docks to welcome the refugees as they arrive, giving practical information and handing out water, food, clothes and nappies for the babies.
|Nawal Soufy delivers basic supplies to refugees [Photo courtesy of Nawal Soufy]|
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), from the start of January 2015 to the end of January 2016, nearly 530,000 people landed in Lesbos. Since the start of this year, almost 30,000 refugees have reached the island.
Nawal’s simple approach to helping them has saved dozens of lives.
It is work she does free of charge and without affiliation to any NGO or organisation. “It’s the heart that repays me,” she says.
Others have started to join her and she now has a small team – two Syrians, a Palestinian and an Egyptian.
They have all been in a similar situation to those they now help – fleeing war in Libya and Syria and economic stagnation in Egypt. But, instead of continuing their journeys on to other destinations in Europe, they chose to stay and help Nawal as she tries to help others like them.
“One of the men who works with me now called me last summer from a sinking ship which had 550 people onboard,” Nawal explains. “I alerted the Italian coastguard and they redirected a commercial ship near Libya to come to their aid, as the Italian military boats were far away and not able to offer immediate help.”
Refugees ‘attacked at sea’
The work can be frenetic and seemingly unending. Nawal often goes 48 hours without sleep when there are many boats making the journey.
“One of the hardest things is trying to reassure the refugees while they are at sea, trying to calm them down,” she says. “I often have to shout to interrupt them because all they keep repeating is that they are sinking, the waves are high and the women are crying. But the most important information I need to know to be able to help them is their exact co-ordinates.”
Once Nawal is given the co-ordinates she tries to get information about the type of boat the refugees are on and instructs them not to move once they see the rescue ship approaching.
Lastly, she explains that if they are on a larger boat with a hold they must open it to ensure that there are no refugees trapped inside. On the longer crossings from Egypt and Libya, it is common for larger wooden boats to be used. Those who have paid the smugglers a lower fee are often stowed in the cargo holds of these boats, perishing in the cramped, airless confines and unable to escape if the boat sinks.
The International Organization of Migration believes that more than 5,350 men, women and children died making the crossing in 2015. In January 2016, an estimated 362 people perished.
Once Nawal receives a boat’s co-ordinates, she flags them to the Greek and Turkish coastguards. If they are overwhelmed with other rescue missions, Nawal calls the Italians. She says that between October and November, on the island of Lesbos alone, an average of 35 dinghies would arrive daily.
“Greece cannot be left alone to handle the crisis, just like Italy cannot be left alone in handling the refugees from Libya and Egypt,” she says.
Recently, Nawal has been receiving reports from refugees of masked men approaching them on other boats, attacking them at sea and stealing or destroying the outboard motors of their boats, leaving them stranded. A boat in one such attack was photographed by a refugee and Nawal posted it to her Facebook page.
‘Shameful for humanity’
Her voice trembles as she recalls examples of the suffering she witnesses every day. “When you receive a call from a mother describing her [adult] child’s tattoos, the colour of their undergarments and then you recognise the body they are describing lying dead on the beach, it’s devastating,” she says.
She recounts how, on January 15, the Greek coastguard called her to identify a number of bodies off the coast of Samos. One by one, she had to describe each body to the families in order to identify them.
Nawal and the other volunteers do the best they can, financing their efforts with voluntary donations from private individuals. But they know there is only so much they can do in the face of such a huge crisis.
Nawal laments Europe’s failure to devise a collective and humane strategy to deal with it.
“Europe has become inaccessible in legal terms, but porous due to the illegal trafficking of refugees,” she says.
“There is a need for a humanitarian corridor and a need to keep advocating for it, demanding its establishment. These people must be given the right to take an airplane to escape their war-torn countries.
“When a father asks you to hug his [dead] family members, who perished at sea, on his behalf, for me this is not just devastating personally, it is shameful for humanity.”