Love, determination and risking all to cross the Mediterranean

It was dark when Sadia*, 25, climbed from the Libyan beach into the little grey inflatable dinghy, together with her three small children, one night in April 2022. As the first to board, they sat at the bow, while the others squeezed in around them. Men straddled the dinghy’s sides, each with one leg dangling in the water.Many of these crossings ended in fatalities, including 30 people who went missing in June 2022 from a partially sinking boat in the Mediterranean. A non-governmental search and rescue ship, the Geo Barents, operated by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) arrived on the scene and was able to rescue 71 people, although a pregnant woman died despite attempts to resuscitate her.

Women, strong and calm

It was common for the smugglers and fellow passengers to direct women and children to sit in the middle of rubber boats or below deck on wooden boats. “This position seems safer from everyone’s perspective. They feel protected by the others surrounding them and less scared to fall in the water,” said Riccardo Gatti, one of MSF’s search and rescue coordinators onboard the Geo Barents.

However, as Gatti explained, this position can ultimately be more dangerous as they are far from a possible escape route, and could get trapped if the crowd panics. “The mix of seawater and fuel, generally running through the middle of the boat can also lead to chemical burns and asphyxiation,” he said.

Female refugees and migrants are often depicted in the media as especially vulnerable, according to Alarm Phone, a non-governmental organisation that relays distress calls from the Mediterranean to emergency services, NGOs and commercial vessels in the area. However, in reality, that is rarely the case.

Distress calls from boats leaving Libya are almost always made by male passengers, said Hela (who asked Al Jazeera not to publish her last name) an activist with Alarm Phone since 2018.

However, in Hela’s opinion, often the person calling is “too stressed” to communicate clearly – as they are travelling hundreds of kilometres in an overcrowded boat – so Alarm Phone staff will ask to speak to a female passenger.

They are “almost always the strongest and the calmest. They are so powerful that they always manage to actually calm down the people, explain the situation and the communication is usually much easier with women,” she said.

A few hours after Sadia’s boat had set off, a man on board placed a distress call to Alarm Phone – using a satellite phone given to him by the smugglers in Libya – that was then relayed to the Geo Barents. Sadia has no recollection of the two MSF rescue boats approaching them on April 23 at 7:45am when they were 37km (23 miles) from the coast of Libya. She doesn’t remember being transferred into a stretcher and heaved up through a door on the side of the multi-decked, 77-metre (253-foot) ship.

Nejma Banks, the Algerian-American cultural mediator onboard the Geo Barents and herself a mother of four, was part of the crew who rescued Sadia. She had seen survivors in that state before. “Travelling on a boat with the fuel smells, the crowd and, you’re prone to seasickness. The sea is merciless,” she said in a moment of calm after the rescue.

Two days later, treated for her seasickness and wearing an MSF-issued tracksuit instead of the wet, fuel-soaked clothes that she was rescued in, Sadia sat on a deck reserved for women and children, gently rocking her one-year-old daughter to sleep. Just a few metres away, her two sons, aged seven and two, played with plastic safari animals.

Banks sat cross-legged on the floor, quietly listening to Sadia’s story of love, determination and friendship in the face of unimaginable horror, occasionally reaching over to touch her wrist to clarify something before turning to translate.

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