“”I’m black, I can’t swim, but my presence on this boat is fundamental.”

What motivated you to join a sea rescue NGO?

I myself have been on the road as a migrant. I arrived here in Italy in 2011 after a long journey from my home country. I had the experience of arriving in this country as a foreigner, and at the time I was lucky enough to be welcomed well. Once I was able to integrate into Italian society, I felt I had a responsibility to bear witness: to tell the story of why I had to leave home, what the journey was like, what it was like to find yourself in a country that wasn’t your own. That’s what I do in Italy: I go into schools to tell people about my journey, talk to young people and try to deconstruct prejudices. In Italy, a lot of people don’t understand anything about migration, what drives people to leave their country and what they go through. When I arrived here, I had to inform people and tell them about what I had seen and experienced.

So long before I embarked on a lifeboat, I was already in the role of activist, trying to change people’s views. In the summer of 2023, I had the opportunity to go on board with an NGO as a cultural mediator. I immediately accepted, because I felt I owed a debt to the people who supported me: to those who rescued me in 2011 when I was in my boat in distress [before the arrival of the NGO boats in 2014] and to those who helped me integrate when I arrived in Italy. I remember when we landed in Lampedusa, there were lots of people and organisations there to welcome us. I’ll never forget that moment. And I said to myself last summer that I wanted to return the favour. To show my solidarity with my brothers and sisters suffering in the Mediterranean.

And then, as someone who had been through the same journey as them, I thought I’d be the best person to answer their questions and give them useful information about what to expect in Italy. That’s how I ended up on an NGO boat.

Picture: M. in Lampedusa. Credit: Luigi Geroldi

What exactly was your role on the boat?

As a cultural mediator, I was in charge of communication with the migrants.  During the rescue, I was the one who spoke to the people during the first approach so that everyone understood what was going to happen, to reassure them so that the operation went smoothly. We find that in many situations, what makes a rescue chaotic is poor communication with the people in distress. I spoke a lot of different languages and dialects, so it was very important for me to be the one doing the communicating.

Once the rescue was over, I was the mediator between the people rescued and the crew, passing on information and reporting needs. But it was actually quite difficult to communicate with the crew, because English was the only language…

How did the language spoken on board cause difficulties?

I speak a lot of languages, but I’m not very fluent in English. Often I didn’t understand everything that was said. There were a lot of people on board who spoke languages I knew well, like Italian, but nobody made the effort to translate the things I couldn’t understand. Why didn’t they? Because there was this rule that English had to be the working language. I really felt discriminated against because speaking only one language excludes people! It excludes people like me who speak lots of languages but not the right ones.

When rescue organisations say that they are inclusive and that they respect differences, I don’t think they are being consistent. Why impose a single language that is de facto exclusionary? As part of my integration, I’ve already made the effort to learn Italian in addition to all the languages I speak, and I’m being asked to learn yet another? It’s always the same people who have to adapt. I have the impression that Westerners, for their part, make very little effort to learn other languages. This injunction to always fit in, to adapt… the result among the crew is that I was never really able to express my opinion or to be really listened to.

Besides, I find that English as a working language in the Mediterranean doesn’t really make sense. There are many African countries where people speak French. And around the Mediterranean, not many people speak English. I’m not saying that we should choose another language at all costs, but at least we should be more open and aware of the discrimination that choosing English can produce. I also asked myself the question: why didn’t the captain communicate with the Italian authorities in Italian when he spoke Italian? I think that relations and understanding would be easier with the Italian authorities.

What was your experience on board as a racialised person in a white crew?

It was already very difficult because of the English language to be on board as a communicator/mediator, but not really to be able to communicate with the crew. But at the same time, as a black person, I had a very important role to play on board.

I noticed that I was systematically photographed, no matter what I was doing, as if I was simply there as an advertisement, to show that yes, black people could take part in this rescue work. In reality, I’m happy to be photographed, but I would have liked to be able to share my story and have my voice heard. Without that, I’m just an image to be used for publicity.

I was also shocked when we disembarked. After the rescue, when we arrived on board, the medical authorities were waiting to check on the health of the survivors we had on board. The doctor came to check me, saying he had to see if I had scabies. He checked me because I was black like the others, even though I had my radio, my organisation T-shirt and it was really clear that I was part of the crew! The other crew members said nothing. They weren’t checked…

In addition to the survivors you were able to take on board following the two rescue operations, unfortunately you also found the body of a woman who was dead. How did you deal with this situation?

During our week of training before the start, we had a long discussion about what we would do if we found a body at sea. I said it was important to take the body, so that the person could rest in peace and the family could recover the body to mourn. But not everyone agreed, and there were many arguments to the contrary. First of all, as we didn’t have a fridge on board, it was difficult to envisage taking a body; secondly, we would immediately have to request a port of disembarkation; and thirdly, this situation could be traumatic for the people on board, having to make the journey to disembarkation with a decomposing body.

During this discussion, one of the crew asked the question: but if one of us dies during the rotation, for one reason or another, what are we going to do with the body? Throw it overboard? Thinking about this situation made us think a lot. I wonder if there isn’t sometimes something discriminating in the way we look at bodies… I understand all the reasons why NGOs are reluctant to take bodies on board, but I think it’s really important to take things into account…

Unfortunately, we had the experience of finding the body of a lifeless woman after a rescue. As we had survivors on board, we had to ask the authorities for a safe port of disembarkation and the crew decided to take the body on board. Talking to some of the survivors, I realised that this woman was a hero: that all night she had been scooping up the water entering the boat before we arrived on the scene to rescue those still alive. We decided to thank her and honour her memory.

I contacted a former Red Cross colleague to bring flowers at the time of disembarkation. The authorities weren’t too happy about this and asked us to hurry up, but it was very important for me and the other people on board to pay tribute to her.

Why do you think it’s important to have people on the crew who have experienced migration themselves?

I think that’s very important and makes all the difference. When I’m in charge of communications during the rescue, I know what people are feeling because I’ve experienced it myself. Also, when my brothers and sisters see me from their boat, they can be sure that we’re not Libyans, even if I speak to them in Arabic.

Once the survivors are on board, the mediator is also responsible for sharing information with people about Europe, about their rights, the asylum procedure, the Dublin system… As I’ve also been through this, I know how to communicate this information. My brothers and sisters know this, and they trust me.

I can tell them how for me learning the language was crucial in my integration, in my search for a job… it’s a sharing of experience that only someone who has been through it themselves and has integrated can do. Otherwise, the cultural mediator is just an interpreter, and that’s not the same thing, it doesn’t have the same value.

Yet the world of rescue at sea remains a world of white Europeans, reflecting an issue which is existing in the whole society. Even though there are plenty of black people with very useful skills, they are kept on the sidelines. We often don’t take the time to train them.  I would find it very important, for example, to have more black captains doing sea rescue work. There’s still this deep-rooted image that black people can’t swim, or that they’re not capable… that has to change! I want to say to the NGO I sailed with: I’m black, I can’t swim, but my presence on this boat is fundamental.

There is growing criticism of the ‘white saviourism’ that exists within the SAR bubble, which tends to perpetrate disguised forms of racism and colonialism. Have you come across this kind of attitude? 

Yes, you can call it what you like. Taking part in rescue operations at sea, whether you’re white or black, completes your humanity, and it’s very important to do so. We can be proud of what we do, that’s not the problem. What I find more problematic is when you refuse to do everything in your power to ensure that the rescue goes well. And as I said, the presence of an experienced cultural mediator is very important, and too bad if it offends the pride of some white people.

This concerns NGOs, but even more so the Italian coastguard, who have already caused accidents because of the absence of a cultural mediator on board during the rescue.

Another thing that struck me was the way in which survivors are sometimes treated by the rest of the crew. Just to give an example: just after the rescue, there were some people who were very wet and cold, while others didn’t even have any trousers left on, leaving their private parts uncovered. I asked a team-mate if we could give some trousers to these few people. I knew we had a large stock in the boat. But my team-mate told me that it wasn’t possible, because if she gave to these people, then she would have to give to everyone else, otherwise people would fight and the situation could get out of hand.

However, the people on board understood perfectly well why such and such people needed clothes! Because of this rule, one gentleman spent several days on board with just a towel around his waist, barely concealing his nakedness…. I don’t think that’s humane… and it’s based on the assumption that black people are bound to behave like animals. As a mediator, I had spoken to the people and I knew that things would go well… but no, the people were never given any clothes, on the pretext that they might kill each other.

After this experience with a rescue NGO, I want to move things forward, because deep down I know that we all have the same goal. We’re here to stop people losing their lives at sea. I’m alive, but I owe a debt to my brothers and sisters. And my duty is to make their voice heard. To continue to be the voice of the voiceless!

ECHOES Issue 10, January 2024 – English