Three Years Of

SAVING LIVES AT SEA

moas-summary

It’s daybreak when two drones take flight off the back of the ship Phoenix. They’re headed for a swath of the sea referred to as the “dead zone.” Here – just a few miles from the Libyan shore – they’ll bear witness to the maritime migration crisis that since the beginning of the year has claimed countless thousands of lives.

The world is no longer surprised by the sight of refugees fleeing their country by boat, or even by those of dead bodies washing ashore. The same too can be said of the crew aboard the Phoenix, who on this morning are analyzing imaging and locational data sent back from the dead zone drones. But what makes this crew different and extraordinary is not that they’re paying attention. It’s that in no time at all, they’ll run to the rescue.

At the helm (figuratively and literally), stand Christopher and Regina Catrambone. Five years ago, they led an insurance company. Today, they pull thousands of people out of the ice-cold Mediterranean, sometimes on the edge of death or already gone. Since 2014, their organization Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) has rescued and assisted over 40,000 refugees lost at sea. This phenomenal success – and current glossy branding – betrays very humble and singular roots. Having been established in 2014, MOAS was the first search and rescue (SAR) NGO of its kind in the Mediterranean. Simply put, there wasn’t an NGO built to save people losing their lives at sea, so the Catrambones bought a 40-metre Canadian fishing vessel and built one.

“People are dying out at sea, and they cannot die without being seen.”

This new and incredibly straightforward approach was born out of human obligation. “Closing our eyes or pretending it’s not happening will not resolve the migratory crisis that we are facing at the moment,” offered Regina. “People are dying out at sea, and they cannot die without being seen.”

As Christopher summarized it, “People were drowning, and we needed to purchase a vessel that could go pick these people up out of the water. It’s that simple.” And MOAS was born from that simple yet difficult directive.

Taking Action

The Catrambones decided to start with a proof of concept. “MOAS was created to prove the concept that we need to stand for humanity,” stated Regina.  Practically, a proof of concept required them to dip into their own savings and to buy a search and rescue boat. Then they got a team to rehab it. “You cannot just go buy a boat and say, ‘Ok, let’s go rescue people,’ ” explained Christopher. “If you want to rescue people correctly and properly and professionally, then you need to do a lot of work to that boat.”

They did the work and planned their first mission rescuing refugees and migrants who crossed the Andaman Sea in dinghies, but they faced opposition. People assumed that they were in cahoots with traffickers or colluding with governments.

“It’s a saddening piece of our human history at this moment in time that people can’t do something without a return,” observed Christopher.

Regina clarified their motives, stating, “Why we decided to do this is because together things can really change. Together with people, families can unify and really help others.”

The next steps after buying the boat were to build a talented, like-minded crew and to start saving lives. Dominic “Mimmo” Vella is a representative of the team they created. When describing MOAS’ work, he shared, “There are NGOs … NGOs to save dolphins, fish, this and that. So people are people. They may have different ideas, but we cannot leave people dying at sea.”

There wasn’t an NGO built to save the people who were losing their lives at sea, so the Catrombones made one from the ground up. MOAS’ approach to rescue is as ingenious as it is whimsical. Their missions use drones to identify boats that need rescue, and that’s significant.  “A drone that is usually thought of like a war piece of equipment is now used to save lives. You know? And that’s amazing, ” mused Maria Luisa Catrambone, daughter of Regina and Christopher and Operations Coordinator for MOAS.

The drones fly out in the early morning, searching for boats to save. Once found, the boats can be a difficult sight to process.  “As someone who has never seen something like this before, it’s shocking because it looks like… slave ships are back, ” shares Christopher. “People are put in these dire conditions that are sub-human, and that is very sad. You just desperately want to get them off of this boat as soon as possible to give them their humanity back.”

These refugees could have attempted to trek through the desert, but they felt that the journey would be more palatable by sea. It isn’t. For many, it’s their first time experiencing the sea. They are seasick, crammed with as many as 200 other people, and sometimes trampled, as standing room is hard to come by. There are women and children and little babies and young men who all believe there is something better for them once they cross the sea.

 

"They want and seek a better, peaceful life—without bombs, without guns, without war."

The boats that MOAS discovers are the lucky ones. They get one step closer to a better life.

“You are there and you give them life jackets and then you take them in our dinghies to our boats. It’s like … you break this human puzzle,” describes Regina. “ For me when I see them there and then slowly, slowly we take them on our ships. It’s like they were born again. We give them humanity back. We give them the right to live.”

After successful missions in the Andaman, MOAS expanded their outreach to the Aegean Sea, responding to a need, as always. The experience was different. Rougher seas called for faster rescues. Critics continued to politicize their efforts. Christopher and Regina held fast to the why behind their work when they felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem.

MOAS is about offering second chances.  “That is the minimum that [the migrants] expect is a chance, and I think that that is what we owe them is a chance... and that is exactly what MOAS is doing--giving them the opportunity to have a chance to say and plead their case.”

Regina and Christopher used their knowledge and their funds to start this opportunity-granting movement, and people from across the globe propelled the movement further. The Catrambones considered closing MOAS in 2015. They’d given all they could, and donors were hard to come by.  A tragic image in which the corpse of a young boy was washed onto shore was what it took to give urgency to MOAS’ work.

“Closing our eyes or pretending it’s not happening will not resolve the migratory crisis that we are facing at the moment.”

That image did for thousands of people what the realization that people were drowning did to the Catrambones. They had to act.  “Closing our eyes or pretending it’s not happening will not resolve the migratory crisis that we are facing at the moment,” offered Regina. “People are dying out at sea, and they cannot die without being seen.”

The Catrambones choose to see people, with different cultures and skin colors and backgrounds, and to use what they have to create better possibilities for others. They didn’t start by reaching out to the government or launching a protest campaign. Instead, they led with their actions. The Catrambones remind us that, with courage and with creativity, we can all become change-makers in our own right. Not all of us can buy a search and rescue boat, but we can all choose to go beyond seeing and to start acting in even the smallest of ways.

To learn more about Christopher and Regina Catrambone and the MOAS Foundation, please visit https://www.moas.eu/.

 

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