Just after midnight on May 17, 2021, the crew of the German Sea-Eye 4 rescue ship received a distress call alerting them to a boat of migrants in danger in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. The Sea-Eye 4 had already conducted two rescue operations the previous afternoon and early evening. With 229 refugees on board, the ship was already crowded, but the crew knew they had to respond to the distress call they had received.

This was only the first mission for the Sea-Eye 4—a 48-hour period during which six rescue operations would take place.

ELCA World Hunger supported the conversion of this supply ship, built in 1979, into one that could conduct rescues in the Mediterranean for the German nonprofit Sea-Eye. The Sea-Eye 4 was already well-designed for rescue operations with its spacious layout and decks, but the substantial conversion included updates to the electric and nautical equipment, new accommodations, and the addition of a large, well-equipped infirmary.

When a lookout alerts the Sea-Eye 4 to a needed rescue operation, crew members lower two speedboats into the water to locate people in distress, distribute life jackets and evacuate the unseaworthy vessels.

Often the coastal authorities from the country the migrants are fleeing approach departing boats aggressively and try to halt them. For the migrants on May 17, it was difficult to know what kind of ship was approaching them. “We are here to help you,” a crew member from one of the Sea-Eye 4’s smaller speedboats announced. “We have a rescue vessel, and we are here to rescue everyone.” Once the migrants heard they were being rescued, applause, cries of relief and pleas for help resounded.

When the smaller boat returned and everyone embarked on the Sea-Eye 4, a woman caught the eye of Slovakian journalist Sara Cincurova. The woman was very pregnant, soaking wet, with flushed cheeks. Ayana (name changed for privacy), the expectant mother, had been living in a Libyan refugee camp prior to migrating. She knew she didn’t want to stay in the camp or give birth there.

Now, after several days at sea with no food and very little water, she desperately needed medical care.

The migrants made it on board the Sea-Eye 4 and made their way through the infirmary. Ayana was OK, but Cincurova couldn’t stop thinking about her.

“You are not my friend. You are my sister.”

According to the International Organization for Migration, every year tens of thousands of migrants attempt the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in inflatable or old wooden boats. The route is deadly, but those who attempt to cross into Europe are fleeing hunger, poverty, violence and war. The majority of those who do so pass through Libya, where they are vulnerable to violence, torture and human trafficking.

The number of men and women migrants is about even, but the international humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders estimates that 30% of the women fleeing across the Mediterranean are pregnant. Women making the attempt to migrate across this sea are especially vulnerable to violence—and may have already experienced abuse in their countries of origin—as they pass through Libya.

On the day following the night rescue, Cincurova was able to reconnect with Ayana. She was still exhausted and, not feeling well, attempted to get some sleep wrapped up in a rescue blanket. The two decided to get some fresh air on deck.

“As [Ayana] was watching the deck full of people, she started crying and looked at me to say, ‘I want to do the work that you do—I want to help people, because I love helping people,’” Cincurova remembered on Sea-Eye’s Honestly Speaking podcast.

As Ayana disembarked in Italy, Cincurova exchanged contact information with her. They now keep in touch via WhatsApp. “You can always let me know how you are and write to me,” Cincurova said. “I’m your friend.”

Ayana responded, “You are not my friend. You are my sister.”

Ayana gave birth to a healthy boy in Italy, bringing the Sea-Eye 4’s total number of people rescued in its first mission from 408 to 409—more than any of the previous missions on Sea-Eye ships. The organization’s goal is to save as many lives as possible in the Mediterranean, and the conversion of the Sea-Eye 4 is making that possible. But challenges lie ahead, especially with increasingly strict approaches to welcoming refugees into the European Union.

The Sea-Eye 4 continues its rescue missions in the Mediterranean. In late June it had rescued 494 people on a single mission.

Around the world, migration is on the rise worldwide, especially as the war in Ukraine persists. Millions of people such as Ayana have been driven from their homes by hunger, poverty, conflict and human trafficking. ELCA World Hunger supports projects that accompany people on the move and as they resettle.

Lindsey Queener
Lindsey Queener is the communications manager for ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran Disaster Response. She and her husband live in Washington, D.C., where they attend Augustana Lutheran Church.

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