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What Started as a Luxury Cruise Has Saved 2,000 People on the Mediterranean

Transferring a migrant on the Migrant Offshore Aid Station


Sabrina Arena Ferrisi - published on 09/20/14

Rescue Ship and Crew Inspired by Pope Francis and his Visit to Lampedusa

It started out as a luxury cruise.

Chris and Regina Catrambone were on a private yacht sailing between the Italian island of Lampedusa and Tunisia in July 2013. Chris, an American from Louisiana, and his Italian wife, Regina, were enjoying themselves when they spotted a floating white jacket in the Mediterranean Sea.

“We asked the captain about it. He said that the person who had worn it was probably not with us anymore,” said Regina Catrambone.

She and her husband realized that while they were on the sea vacationing, men, women and children were losing their lives in the same body of water.

“We felt a call after this. It was as if we fell from the clouds. We had to help,” said Regina.

The Catrambones, the Catholic owners of an insurance company in Malta, realized that they had the means to do something concrete to help desperate migrants. They bought a 130-foot vessel in Norfolk, Virginia, and refurbished it for rescue operations. The ship had previously been used as a research ship by the US Navy. The Catrambones created an organization, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS, based in Malta, this year. Their ship, the Phoenix, began rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea this August.

They have saved 2000 peoples so far.

“When we carried out our first rescue, we helped save over 200 people,” said Brigadier Martin Xuereb, director of MOAS and former Chief of Defense for Malta. “We had 50 children on board of our ship; most were under the age of 5.”

That same day the Phoenix spotted a rubber boat with 97 men from sub-Saharan Africa. The Rescue Coordination Center from Rome gave them on-scene command until other boats could come in and take the men on-board. The Phoenix eventually transferred all the men to a merchant ship nearby, the Bourbon Orca.

The migrants who flee northern Africa are usually on overloaded boats run by criminal gangs. Sometimes they drown at sea. Other times, they reach the Italian coast half-starved. Malta and Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, are major destinations for people trying to enter Europe.

“We don’t get into whether these migrants should be fleeing or not. For us, what matters is that those 50 children didn’t die that day out at sea,” said Xuereb.

The Phoenix is equipped with a crew that has over 30 years’ experience in rescue operations. They have two paramedics on board, as well as food, water, life-jackets and emergency medical aid. The vessel uses two drones to fly out for six hours at a time to detect migrant ships. The drones have a range of 60 miles. The Phoenix also has two rescue dinghies.

The people MOAS has saved come from Syria, Libya, Gaza, Eritrea, Somalia and sub-Saharan Africa.

“Among those saved, you see doctors, lawyers, children with school bags. One child had a Power Rangers life jacket. A lady had her handbag,” said Xuereb.

“We had one Palestinian guy who was a professor of classical Arabic in his 60s. He sold his house and car for $15,000 to come. This was a time in his life when he would have liked to retire and settle down in his homeland, but he felt he had to leave,” he said.

Often, the MOAS crew sees young children without their parents.

“We have had unaccompanied minors. This is when a family could not save everyone, so they decide to save only one. This must be the hardest thing a parent can do, to let a child go. They make this decision with great pain, but also with great love because they want a future for their children,” said Xuereb.

Regina and the rest of the MOAS team credit Pope Francis for inspiring them to do something.

“Pope Francis said in an Angelus last year that we must go from a being a ‘throw-away culture’ to a ‘culture of encounter’,” said Regina. “With regards to the migrant situation, he said we must take our responsibilities to do what we can and not turn away. These migrants are the last ones, the ones that no one wants.”

In fact, Pope Francis made his first official trip as Pope to Lampedusa in July 2013, to show his solidarity to migrants and those who help them. The altar he used for mass was made from a boat.

Another event which pushed the Catrambones to action was a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013, when 360 people died within sight of land. One week later, another shipwreck occurred near Malta, where 34 people died.

According to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, 125,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since January 1, 2014, which works out to about 1000 migrants per day. It is an enormous increase since last year, when 43,000 migrants arrived in total. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, 60,000 people arrived.

“The reason why we are seeing a huge increase in migrants is something we deduce from the nationalities. We are seeing people fleeing from the situation in Syria, the crisis in Eritrea and Somalia, and the instability in Libya,” said Federico Fossi, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Rome.

This year alone, it is estimated that over 2,500 people have died at sea. Since 1993, it is believed that 20,000 people have died altogether.

“This is a European problem,” said Fossi. “It is an economic problem for Italy to finance this operation alone. Italy needs other European nations to help.”

Besides the rescue efforts of Italy, the MOAS team believes that private entities can help too. They are the first private group dedicated to saving migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

“During our first trip, we saved over 300 people. They were Syrians and Palestinians who had disembarked from Tripoli. The helipad was used for the men. The women and children were placed below-deck,” said Regina. “The smallest child was two days old. He had been in the hot sun the entire time.”

One woman had diabetes.

“She had been without food for 36 hours and was handicapped. We worked with an Italian Navy ship nearby called Chimera, and one of their doctors came onboard. He gave her insulin, and she is doing better now,” she said. “The doctor’s name was Salvatore, which means ‘savior.’ We feel that God has given us many signs.”

All of MOAS’ activities are coordinated with Italy’s naval operation called Mare Nostrum and Malta’s Rescue Coordination Center. Sometimes, the Phoenix locates migrant rafts, and Italian authorities direct them to take everyone on board. Other times, they shadow a migrant vessel until the appropriate Italian ships arrive.

“We met a man who had survived one of the shipwrecks last October. He told us that if the death of his wife and daughter moved Italy to create Mare Nostrum and us to found MOAS, then they did not die in vain,” said Regina.

The Catrambones note that the men, women and children that are being saved are not fleeing poverty. All of the migrants saved have been fleeing conflicts.

“The situation is so desperate that they are selling all their belongings to get their families a place on these boats, in the full knowledge that they may end up like the hundreds of people who drowned last weekend,” said Regina, recalling a shipwreck that took place off the coast of Libya on September 12, where 800 people died.

MOAS will continue rescue operations until October 31. They are trying to raise funds through crowd-sourcing and private donations to continue their work.

“In the face of this all, we keep one thing in mind,” said Regina, “nobody deserves to die at sea.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is senior staff writer for Legatus magazine.  

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