Interview: On the mission aboard the Open Arms.


Mediterranean Hope

As part of Mediterranean Hope – Programme for Refugees and Migrants – FCEI has started a collaboration project with the Spanish Proactiva, one of the NGOs involved in the search and rescue of refugees in the Mediterranean sea. As known, at the moment one of the boats of Proactiva, the Open Arms, is seized in the port of Pozzallo but the NGO intends to resume activities with another ship and the FCEI is ready to cooperate. On board the Open Arms, on its penultimate mission, there were an operator of Mediterranean Hope, Francesco Piobbichi, and a collaborator, Daniele Naso, a thirty-year-old social worker. For 15 days Daniele was the “cocinero” (cook) of the Spanish ship and the Observatory on migrations of Mediterranean Hope in Lampedusa asked him some reflections on the recent experience on board.

During the mission in three different operations, the Open Arms secured 206 people, including a fourteen-year-old boy with severe leukemia. How did the search and rescue operations take place and what feelings did you experience on board during those moments?

Once in the Search and Rescue (SAR) area, both at night and during the day, there are those who constantly monitor the radar and who, through binoculars, watch closely the sea. This activity is important because many times only to the naked eye you realize if there are boats in distress. Once the so-called “target” has been identified, the two dinghies of the rescue ship are lowered into the sea in order to quickly reach the area of the operation. The first phase is very delicate: the lifebuoys are distributed and then all the rescued people, one by one, are brought up on the dinghy that takes them to the ship. Women and children always take precedence. It is very impressive to see the boats overflowing with people at the mercy of the waves, the anxiety in wondering if they are all right, the signs of greeting that are exchanged from afar. A special moment is when everyone is on the ship and they realize that their life is no longer at risk. We know that these people escape from their countries to survive, who in their flight go through the horror of detention centres in Libya where they are tortured …, they challenge the sea and risk death. Seeing brothers, sisters and friends, who hug each other, sing, laugh and cry, fills you with joy.

Can you tell us what are the very first steps immediately following the rescue?

Once on board, everyone goes first to the doctor and nurse for a visit; they receive water, nutrition bars and, depending on the climatic conditions, they are equipped with any blankets. When the procedures are over, you have time to talk to each other, share stories and emotions.

The mission in which you participated lasted about two weeks, during which you shared limited spaces and intense experiences with the international crew of the Proactiva Open Arms. Can you tell us how you lived everyday life on board and what were the activities that characterized your days?

Every day, the Open Arms is organized on the basis of shifts involving everyone: cleaning the rooms and the ship, help in the kitchen, radar monitoring and the use of binoculars. Every day we meet to assess the situation and discuss solutions. At other times, technical exercises take place. Obviously some of the ordinary activities are off in case of rescues, where everyone has a precise role to play.

During the mission you provided the cooking services for the crew. How was this experience, was it difficult to meet the needs and tastes of such a large crew? Did you ever have to prepare meals for people rescued?

From the beginning the whole crew greatly appreciated Italian cuisine… I was very pleased. Cooking on a ship is difficult because everything sways and the spaces are tight. But with a little organization you can do it well. I appreciated that there is a lot of attention in ensuring that those who follow a vegan diet can also do it on the Open Arms.

During the rescues, before cooking for the crew, we prepare a meal for the rescued people, suited to their habits, almost always rice or rice pudding.

Based on the days spent together with the girls and boys of Proactiva Open Arms, what image of the situation in the Central Mediterranean will you take home?

I met people who set a great example, for years they have been dedicated to rescues at sea with great humanity, generosity, tenacity and competence. In a desperate place of war and suffering, their work is essential, I would say of… vital importance!