I am not a mother, I have never been pregnant and cannot claim to understand fully the bond of a mother and her child. But I have a mother who loves me and I know she would give everything for me, in many ways she already did. She gave up food, clothes, holidays and more so that my siblings and I could be well-educated, fed, and make something good of ourselves. I know how much she hurts when we are hurting and how she is unable to sleep when one of us- her children is in pain, and how she cares for me when I am ill. So I know to an extent the bond a mother has with her child for I have experienced and still experience that very bond with my mother which might be why this story I am about to write hurts my heart so much that it took me seven months to be able to type this out.
It was a calm night in November 2016, our MSF Search And Rescue (SAR) team had just completed a series of rescues and was told to remain on standby by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), which we did. Not long afterwards, we were notified by MRCC that a commercial vessel had rescued some people the night before and would bring them to us so we should prepare for the transfer. We prepared quite optimistically because the people were rescued the night before and that at least meant they did not spend the cold night in a rubber dinghy with very little on as was usually the case, and that meant little or no risk of hypothermia and deaths.
The transfer went smoothly, the guests embarked our vessel, were registered and settled in; but it wasn’t long before I noticed that several of the Nigerian women were crying, then the crying became wailing and others around them sat in silence shaking their heads in sorrow. Then I saw an older woman who looked like all her energy was depleted sitting in the corner with tears rolling down her cheeks; immediately, I knew she was the one who had lost a loved one along the perilous journey. So I sat next to her as she cried, I cried as well, and we sat there in silence for an hour, maybe two; then she told me the story of how her daughter died in her presence and how her life could never be the same, she was broken.
She was a fellow Nigerian woman bearing one of my names, in her late 40s traveling with her 22-year old daughter from Libya to Italy because they were promised a better life there. Her daughter had almost died once on the journey so when they finally got on the rubber dinghy, they thought all was well, their journey was over, they would arrive in Italy and work to earn their keep. Unbelievable as this may sound to many, a lot of the migrants arriving in Italy by sea do not realize how unrealistic their dreams of life in Europe are; they think that because they are skilled in certain areas, they will get a job and be permitted to live in Italy or other countries in Europe. It’s interesting that for holders of certain passports, that’s all you need to get a visa and residence permit, while for others, it is almost impossible legally, so they resort to taking this deadly route.
Back to the story- they had been on the rubber dinghy for over 10 hours with water seeping in, and fuel leaking in; people were crying out in pain as they tried to move away from the salt water and fuel combination (it causes a terrible burn, that is similar to a hot water burn). As they did this in the overcrowded dinghy, they realised it was partly deflated and more water was coming in, so panic set in and people scrambled to stay on the dinghy. Just then, they saw a big vessel approaching and cried for help while panicking and trying to stay on-board; this was when my friend called to her daughter (we will call her Suwa) “Suwa, help is here, we are safe Suwa” but there was no response. It was pitch dark save for the spot light of the approaching merchant vessel that rescued them; as she called Suwa and reached for her, the spot light shone on that part of the dinghy where she saw her on the floor being trampled by the panicking travelers, her head submerged in a few centimetres of water. She kept screaming “Suwa, hold my hand, Suwa” but Suwa simply looked at her until the light in her eyes were gone and she was no more.
At this point, I wept. What do you say to a mother who has just lost her only child, the child she called her ray of sunshine and reason for living? We wept together until she laid down to sleep and I walked away. There’s more to this story, more that happened as we disembarked but I’ll write that later because even now the tears are streaming down my face as I write this. When did we become so heartless to each other as a society, that we see someone like this and refer to her as a monster, a leech coming to Europe to drain her resources and wealth. Forgetting that the brutal colonial history of Africa is one of the major reasons why the continent is still struggling economically to this day? Am I against rules, laws and immigration? Absolutely not! It is necessary for law and order, and for development; but to demonise people who only want the best for their loved ones, who have themselves been deceived, who have encountered traumas we cannot even begin to imagine, that I can never support.
Love has to win, we cannot live with hate for it will destroy us, I implore you, please choose love.