The ‘guardian angel’ guiding migrants after perilous crossing

Nawal Soufi has helped tens of thousands of migrants who continue to arrive on boats in Catania, in Sicily, after crossing the Mediterranean for a new life in Europe.
Nawal Soufi, a humanitarian activist, at the central Catania train station as she makes an evening round to check for fresh migrant arrivals in need of assistance. Iason Athanasiadis for The National
Nawal Soufi, a humanitarian activist, at the central Catania train station as she makes an evening round to check for fresh migrant arrivals in need of assistance. Iason Athanasiadis for The National

CATANIA, Sicily // Nawal Soufi has stopped eating fish. The very idea of consuming seafood from the Mediterranean repulses her.

“I am always afraid that when I eat a fish it might have a piece of human flesh — a migrant who disappeared in the sea, never to be found — one of the many lost souls that the sea has taken,” she says.

Since the Arab Spring uprisings the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has spiralled upwards with the exodus peaking in 2014 when 180,000 migrants reached the shores of Italy, according to International Office of Migration.

Ms Soufi, however, has been helping those arrive in Italy for much longer, since she was a teenager. In her home city of Catania, in Sicily, the 27-year-old is known as a guardian angel among locals and the tens of thousands whom she has aided. Catania has earned a nickname of its own — “the Gateway to Europe” for migrants who continue to arrive on boats.

Last week, 300 migrants disappeared in the Mediterranean, just the latest addition to the lost souls that preoccupy Ms Soufi. While aboard four dinghies they were either swallowed by colossal waves or succumbed to frigid temperatures.

Just days before this incident, another 29 migrants died of hypothermia while waiting to be brought to safety by the Italian Coastguard.

“Before it was Moroccans, Algerians and Eritreans, now it is mostly Syrians,” Ms Soufi says. “This [Sicily] is a land of migrants and always will be. It is a gateway, not so much between the east and west, but between human beings.”

From the inception of their treacherous journey crossing the Mediterranean Sea to their onward travel to Italy and further into the heart of Europe, she guides them. Amid the chaos, she is often their only confidante.

“When they contact me before they start, I tell them that I cannot condone that they take to the sea — whether from the humanitarian, legal or ethical perspective,” Ms Soufi says. But knowing that they will continue to come hundreds at a time, vulnerable to deception and trafficking, she has been unable to stop helping them.

Ms Soufi, who was born in Sicily to Moroccan parents, says she helps the migrants purely based on humanity. She works as a translator at the local court but her commitment to the migrants is relentless. She has perfected numerous Arabic dialects over her years helping the refugees.

Almost every morning she wakes up with the next phone call, whether from a mother travelling with several children or a boatful of migrants in distress at sea with satellite phones in hand.

Once they safely arrive and are released by immigration authorities, she meets them at the local train station. By default it has become the transit point for many Syrians, Eritreans, Egyptians, Malians, Nigerians and Afghans, a majority of whom intend to travel to northern European countries that they believe will afford them better asylum conditions and the means to restart their lives.

By the time they meet Ms Soufi, many have already been in contact with her, some for several months before starting their journeys.

Fatima and her 14-year-old daughter Ghinwa travelled from Damascus with the hope of reaching relatives in Germany. They are thankful for Ms Soufi’s help.

“For a while things were OK in Damascus but, aside from the conflict, they started running out of resources and the environment was just not good for my daughter,” says Fatima. Many arriving say that even in the communities that are not experiencing daily battles, the fabric of society has unravelled after years of civil war. From severed families to a lack of basic supplies such as medicine and textbooks, the physical and mental infrastructures of cities and towns are in shambles.

Despite having warned them against taking the boats, Ms Soufi awaits their arrival, knowing well that in the absence of state support and language skills, they are vulnerable to fraud, trafficking and crime, all the while, invisible to mainstream society.

“I also tell myself sometimes when going to bed that it is the last time. But, how can I refuse practicing life? This is a lifestyle for me,” she says.

Winter winds and continuing influx

Every winter, the Sirocco, a desert wind forming in the Sahara gathers to hurricane speed as it heads towards southern Europe, creating huge waves in the Mediterranean. This year, the Sirocco rapidly gathered force over the past weeks bringing with it not just intense storms but also thousands of migrants in dilapidated vessels that Sicilian locals call “boats of death”

“Death that is sold at $1,000 per head if coming from Libya or as high as $6,000 if coming from Turkey,” says Ms Soufi, about the fees paid to the trafficking gangs.

Pointing to the vessels moored in the Catania harbour, she describes seeing these boats arrive, often filled beyond capacity with men, women and children clinging on for their lives, sometimes empty and at other times with dead bodies.

One of the world’s deadliest migrant crossings, the old Sicilian adage of the Mediterranean Sea as a “graveyard” is quickly returning to reality.

Mare Nostrum — the search and rescue operation launched by the Italian government in response to a series of boat tragedies in October 2013 off the island of Lampedusa — ended in October.

It was replaced by an operation called Triton led by Frontex, the European Union’s border control agency, which has reduced not just the funds and resources but also its mandate.

The limitations of Triton have become more apparent with the rising death toll, even over the harsh winter months when migration flows significantly subside.

In addition to last week’s death toll, 115 deaths were reported in January, according to International Office of Migration. There were only 27 deaths in the same period in 2014, when Mare Nostrum was still in effect.

UNHCR figures show that the end of the search and rescue operation has not deterred the flow of boats. The agency registered at least 22 boats arriving in Italy from Libya carrying 3,528 refugees in January, compared to 2,100 during the same period in 2014.

The increase in deaths, humanitarian organisations say, comes as no surprise.

“The two missions have an entirely different focus. Triton’s objective is border control whereas Mare Nostrum was primarily a rescue at sea operation,” explains Federico Fossi at UNHCR in Rome.

Given the latest fatalities, they have called for an operation on at least the same scale and resources as Mare Nostrum with “rescue” as a core objective.

Most recently, on Sunday, the Italian Coastguard set out to rescue another 1,000 migrants stranded 150 kilometres from Lampedusa. The unceasing arrivals reflect high levels of desperation among those fleeing conflict and with little to no options in neighbouring countries.

Twenty-one year old Ali had envisioned a different future after the Tunisian uprising started in 2011. Having played for the national rugby team, he proudly shares YouTube videos of himself scoring for his country.

“I was simply marching in one of the protests on the main square when I was picked up by intelligence. It was sheer bad luck,” he explains with a wry smile on his face.

Disqualification from his team and accusations of incendiary involvement in protests meant that he and his family were constantly harassed and threatened. So Ali fled his home. Arriving in Libya he found an even worse situation for those like him without the right documents and absence of a functioning asylum system.

Ms Soufi says most who went to Libya had hoped to find work there, especially before the situation worsened, with a collapsed state and criminal clans dictating the laws.

“Complete lack of security meant they were forced to take to the sea with the smuggling gangs,” she says, after meeting Ali at the train station and helping find a bus for the next stage of his journey.

Unable to go further than Libya by land, they inevitably face the sea that lies between them and the hope of refuge in conflict-free Europe. Most of those arriving echoed her explanation. The push away from war and death is much greater than the pull of Europe.

Repeating cycle

Ms Soufi’s hours with these newest arrivals are packed. She has explained logistics of travel, arranged their tickets, found them shelter for the night, helped purchase sim cards and basics, collected food and clothing and even provided a sort of crash course in what they should expect over coming months. Beyond Italy, most of them will go their separate ways with different destinations in mind — Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Brussels and more — based on family ties, what they have heard from others and above all a quest for lives of dignity.

Asmaa, 45, from Deraa, home to the protests that sparked the Syrian uprisings, is hoping to reach her older son in Denmark. He fled more than year ago to escape the mandatory military draft.

Accompanied by her husband and 14-year-old son, Asmaa’s journey that spanned at least four countries, from Yarmouk camp in Syria to the shores of Italy, was fraught with danger and threats to their lives.

“When we were in the desert, it was dark like a sea. Frightening. We kept getting passed on from smuggler to smuggler and then got kidnapped by a last one. I am not even sure if it was theatre or real,’

Despite having endured the toughest journey among this group, she is energised upon finally reaching safety and hopes to start a new peaceful chapter with her family intact.

As Asmaa boards the bus to Milan, she knows that she will never forget the ‘Angel of Catania’.

“I just wanted to be treated as a human being and for someone to simply acknowledge me, my existence” she says.

It is an emotional farewell as Ms Soufi walks away from the departure, bracing herself for the next distress call and repeating the session the next day and the one after. During this brief lull, she will sit by the sea, reminiscing those she has helped over the years and others whom she lost before they ever arrived.

Preethi Nallu and Iason Athanasiadis are working on a multimedia project called “Parallel Journeys: Seasons of Migration” that explores the Mediterranean crossings through individual narratives.

Updated: July 21, 2017 06:53 PM


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