In the Middle of the Mediterranean, We Tried to Save Lives

Last fall, I was supposed to be in India, studying Hinduism and environmentalism, when I ended up boarding the Iuventa; a voluntary search and rescue vessel en  route to mitigate Libya’s offshore humanitarian crisis. Instead of being embroiled in interviews and libraries, I found myself a member of Jugend Rettet, a Berlin-based NGO, as we saved more than 390 lives in the Mediterranean Sea this November (2016). The experience was certainly unexpected, but ultimately it is the nature of the search and rescue missions (referred to as SAR) to be unpredictable.

Life aboard the Iuventa was challenging. As a small international crew of 15 people, the regular upkeep on our moving ship, including cooking, cleaning, lookouts, and night watches, was no walk in the park. Add to that intermittent rescue operations, some of which could last more than 8 hours, and sleep and energy become terribly scarce. In such high risk and sleep deprived situations, crowd control can take on a particularly strong, even aggressive, tone to keep things safe. Near misses add even more mental stress to the situations. Still, the most tiring days were those in which the operations were unsuccessful. On one cold morning at 2 am, we faced the horrifying reality that a boat in our area—but outside of our line of sight—had sank, presumably with approximately 100 persons on board. Several hours later, we were called to a second, similarly-sized vessel in distress. The vast distances meant that at full speed we were still several hours away. Half way there, we received confirmation that the vessel had capsized. By the time we finally arrived, another estimated 100 had perished.

Last year (2016) was the deadliest on record for migrants seeking to make the crossing to Italy, with an average of 14 dying every day and more than 5,000 perishing over the course of the year. In Greece, where I had previous SAR experience, I noticed how smugglers would send refugees and migrants on overcrowded, dangerous boats to hopefully reach the Greek Isles—a risky, but feasible crossing. In Libya, the situation is different. Smugglers send refugees and migrants on more overcrowded, more dangerous boats, that are simply destined to perish if left to themselves. Every single boat we intercepted did not have close to enough fuel to make it across the Mediterranean—let alone structural integrity or adequate navigational equipment. If these boats had not been found, those aboard would have died.

Days when we are unsuccessful in our mission to rescue lives are chillingly quiet, as the hours of body searches drag on. Needless to say, crew support is essential. I found that the skills I had been taught in freshman counselor preparation at Yale were very transferrable to the situation, and immensely useful. I never expected those hours of psychological training at Yale Health, meant to help field potentially high-stress situations with freshmen, to be so relevant to conversations and lifestyle management on the Iuventa. Coping mechanisms, conversational techniques, and patterns of checking in with your co-workers, all of which I developed during freshman counselor training, proved critical. Without the crew’s support of one another, we certainly could not have continued to operate.

Despite the challenges and difficult days, I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to serve with my crew aboard the Iuventa. The decision to do join the Iuventa was a very natural step for me. As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to serve with and eventually lead the Yale Refugee Project in aiding the resettlement of refugees around New Haven. When I graduated last May, I did so alongside two close friends—one from South Sudan and another from Colombia—who had both faced the horrors of forced migration as refugees. I unrelatedly attended a very unusual high school that had a specialization in emergency maritime SAR operations. There, I was trained and served as a member of a SAR lifeboat crew. That training, along with my personal connection with refugees, led me to spend some time working on a rescue boat in the Aegean with predominantly Syrian refugees making the crossing to Europe from Turkey. Thus, when I heard about the tremendous need off the coast of Libya, I knew I would have to do whatever I could to help.

Though no two stories were alike, everyone on the Iuventa crew had an interesting tale of how they got there. Some were professional firefighters turned SAR rescue swimmers; others were environmental activists with experience aboard Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd ships; most were professional cargo shippers taking time off to volunteer. Where ever they came from, the extent of sacrifice and care exhibited by every member was inspiring. I was awestruck by our translator, who was a Syrian refugee that had only 2 years ago made the crossing from Turkey to Greece in a boat not dissimilar from the ones we were seeing. Despite the tremendous challenges he still faces trying to create a new life in Germany, he volunteered to join us on the mission out of a conviction that he, too, should help whomever he could make it to safety. Our success in rescuing 390+ persons was the result of a tremendous amount of team effort, springing from a firmly held common devotion to helping others. Our translator’s devotion, however, was particularly inspiring in that it propelled him to re-risk his safety along a dangerous migration route to help others making the perilous journey. His is a story not only of resilience, but also of immense compassion and self-sacrifice.

The sharpest lesson from the experience, however, was the desperate need for political solutions to these issues. I felt it more than ever on that morning when we lost the 200: our rescue work is a highly limited, transitory solution to much deeper problems. Disturbingly, most of the migrants we spoke to seem to know and accept the risks involved when they step on to the boat. The only way those 200 could have been saved is if they had not been driven to risk their lives to make it to Europe in the first place—either through more effective governance at home, or a renovated immigration policy abroad. After already having been through such a horrendous journey, it is difficult to think that those who had made it safely to Europe still face an uncertain future.

My hope and prayer is that some of those political solutions, on all sides, may be reached soon. Until that time, I hope to continue to do what I can to help, and encourage others to do the same.

Bill Drexel is a Yale College 2016 graduate, and a current Yale Fox International Fellow and Gordon Grand Fellow.