There’s no darkness like the sea at 3 a.m. If you’re in a simple wooden boat or rubber raft, the choppy waters and starless skies make it hard to understand what direction you’re headed. But for people fleeing persecution in Libya, trying to cross the sea is the only choice they have to find safety.
Aboard the Ocean Viking—a rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea operated by the Red Cross Red Crescent and SOS Mediterranee—rescuers are ready to help. They spot people in danger, floating in the sea, and bring them to safety. I spent a month aboard this rescue ship, where my team cared for families making the treacherous journey. I spoke with most of the 300+ men, women and children rescued from the rough waters and heard about their hopes and dreams for the future.
Just before 3am this morning, people in distress (right) spotted from the #OceanViking.
Rescuers kept them calm, distributed lifejackets, and got all safely aboard.
The survivors are now eating breakfast with relief in their eyes. pic.twitter.com/7bvca2v75P
— Jenelle Eli (@jenelle_eli) November 2, 2021
Jamal* was one of those passengers.
“The one thing I can do right now is help out,” he said— his hands and sleeves covered in soap suds after more than an hour of washing dishes.
Originally from Somalia, he tried making the journey alone after suffering persecution in Libya. “Really I am so thankful. You rescued us from the sea. You rescued us from a very dark place. At least now, I can help too,” he told me.
Every morning, Jamal woke up ready to help serve breakfast aboard the ship. He set up the folding table and filled the dish tubs with soap and water. While fellow refugees ate biscuits, breakfast bars and tea, Jamal washed teacups and refilled food and tea stocks. He worked fast, and did so with humor and a smile under his facemask.
He didn’t need to pitch in—the teams working on board were in charge of serving breakfast—but it added a routine to his day and a sense of community.
“Migrants face drowning, dehydration, exposure and even crushing injuries. It’s an incredibly dangerous journey to try to take.”
Hear from @jenelle_eli how the crew aboard the #OceanViking have saved hundreds of lives in the last few weeks. https://t.co/NBvAIUMyVY
— American Red Cross (@RedCross) November 17, 2021
Jamal fled to find safety.
Jamal was relieved to be part of this floating village. He suffered unimaginable pain over the past years. In Somalia, he lost seven of his family members to violence in mere minutes. He fled conflict there but ended up in Libya—another country torn apart by war. Like many of the people on board our ship, Jamal was kidnapped and tortured by militias in Libya before escaping their grip.
Fleeing wasn’t easy. He climbed aboard a crowded, rickety boat in hopes of reaching somewhere safer. Once at sea, he and his fellow passengers managed to evade the militias and make it to international waters. Still, it was clear this boat would not make it to land on its own. In the pitch-black night, its passengers panicked but kept the hope alive.
Like a needle in a haystack, the Ocean Viking crew found their boat, distributed life jackets, and brought Jamal and all the other passengers on board to safety. Relieved, but also deeply in pain, Jamal showed his torture wounds and said he’d rather end his own life rather than go back to Libya. Thankfully, he will never have to return there, now that he made it out.
Immense relief onboard #OceanViking tonight as maritime authorities informed us the 306 survivors will disembark in Augusta, Sicily.
Despite the storm, ppl are smiling, dancing, crying—an expression of hope for the future.
This girl came in for a hug + wouldn’t let go. pic.twitter.com/93zbSQUjOY
— Jenelle Eli (@jenelle_eli) November 10, 2021
“Thank you for being here for people like us,” he said.
I could see kindness in Jamal’s eyes. And resilience, too. As a teenager, he’s suffered more than most people will in a lifetime. Yet, his instinct is to act with humanity and help others in need of aid. He’s moving through the world with gratitude, gentleness, and hopes for the future.
*Name changed to protect the identity of a minor