Sicilian saves Syrians at sea with mobile phone

Nawal Soufi is never without her mobile phone and thousands of Syrian refugees have reason to be grateful for that.

Sicilian saves Syrians at sea with mobile phone
Human rights activist Nawal Soufi poses during a press conference for the release of the book 'Nawal, L'Angelo dei Profughi'. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

It was an early morning in the summer of 2013 when the fragile-seeming Sicilian 27-year-old took the first panicked call: hundreds of Syrians were lost in the Mediterranean aboard a boat taking on water.

Caught unawares, she called the Italian coastguard, who quickly explained how she, a fluent Arabic speaker thanks to her Moroccan heritage, could tell the terrified migrants how to find their GPS coordinates on their satellite phone and ensure they could be rescued.

After several long hours of silence, Soufi breathed a sigh of relief: everyone on the boat had been saved.

Since that morning, the same scenario has been played out hundreds of times and Nawal — as she is universally known in Italy — has become a symbol of hope for many migrants risking their lives to make it to Europe.

“A call can come at any time. Migrants at sea shout: 'There are 500 people on board, we have been at sea for 10 days and there is no more water,'” the young woman tells AFP on the sidelines of the launch of a book about her life: “Nawal, the refugees' angel.”

No time for mourning

On one recent night, it took her five hours to calm a caller enough to get the only information that counts in such moments: the position of the boat.

The 345 passengers on board — a third of them children — were all saved.

“Italy has a reception system that is full of holes but its rescue system is one of the best in Europe,” she says proudly.

Born in Morocco but an Italian resident from the age of three weeks, Nawal owes her current role to the passion she developed for the 2011 uprising in Syria.

In 2013 she was part of a team which took an ambulance full of medical drugs into Aleppo, handing out her phone number to everyone she met.

It has since been widely shared amongst would-be asylum seekers. Despite her placing direct contacts for the coastguard on her Facebook page, her phone continues to ring.

On the page, which is in Arabic, she regularly posts recordings of her telephone conversations along with her weary remarks about the horrors of the crisis.

“With each drama I feel an emptiness, an emptiness that has no sense,” she said.

“How in 2015 can we still think that the solution is for people to travel in these kind of boats.”

On April 20th, Nawal was on the quay in Catania, lost amidst dozens of reporters who had come to witness the arrival of 28 survivors of the Mediterranean's worst migrant disaster to date, which claimed the lives of some 800 people.

For her, there was no time for mourning, she was already taking yet another call on her clapped out old phone, which she retains because of its tireless battery.

On top of the litany of desperate calls from listing boats, she also fields anxious pleas from relatives trying to find out if a son, a mother or a husband have survived.

When she has tried taking a break and given her phone to friends or family to maintain the watch, it has always been handed back to her within a day by individuals who are unable to cope with the relentless stream of anxiety.

“You can only put up with it if you accept it as a mission. It is a heavy burden but the world is such a cruel place,” said Mussie Zerai, a priest who has been receiving similar calls from Eritreans since 2003.

“Fortunately there are young committed people like Nawal. I admire her courage, it is not easy, especially for a young woman in the south of Italy.”

When she is not on the phone, Nawal studies political science in Catania and works part time as an interpreter for the courts.

She also spends a lot of time at Catania station, where many newly arrived migrants seek to continue their journey to northern Europe.

“My work is to block the land-based traffickers, explain to the asylum seekers they can change their dollars in a bank or take a train for Milan without going through intermediaries,” she said.

Every evening she goes home to a loving and proud mother who asks only one thing of her daughter: that she answer her calls as quickly as the ones she receives from the Mediterranean.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.