ABOARD THE OCEAN VIKING -- Every time Hassan Ali Salem pulls a man, woman or child from a rickety boat or straight out of the water, he relives his own trauma in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Egyptian says he was just 16 when he survived a shipwreck in 2004, saved by another migrant who drowned when a packed wooden boat capsized in rough seas before it could reach Italy.
Now 31, Salem is trying to help migrants who set off from Libya in flimsy vessels arrive safely in Europe.
"As soon as I touch their skin, I have memories from once upon a time," Salem said. "I say to myself: 'You've finally made it, another Hassan has arrived. He's alive.'"
He is one of 22 people of various nationalities working for humanitarian groups SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders aboard the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking, the biggest charity rescue ship currently operating in the central Mediterranean.
On Sunday, the Ocean Viking rescued 50 people not far off Libya's coast, sending its own boats to pick up a pregnant woman close to full term, 12 children and 37 men, all from sub-Saharan Africa.
At least two people feeling ill collapsed upon arrival on the Ocean Viking, while three others were soaked in fuel and two were suffering from mild hypothermia.
The rescue occurred 14 hours after the Ocean Viking received an email by Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants. It was an urgent call seeking help for the rubber boat without a working engine.
The Ocean Viking was already in the Libyan search and rescue zone of the central Mediterranean, where thousands of migrants have drowned in recent years in attempts to reach Europe.
"People on land have no notion of what we see," said Claire Faggianelli, a 31-year-old boat mechanic from France.
While the activities of the humanitarian groups have sparked heated debate in Europe -- critics say they just encourage more migrants to make the perilous crossing from North Africa -- people have lost sight of the human tragedy playing out in the Mediterranean, Faggianelli said.
"Don't you realize what is happening? There are people drowning every day," she said.
Italy's decision to end a major rescue operation in 2014 prompted multiple aid organizations to launch their own rescue missions in the central Mediterranean.
Italy and Malta, the two European countries nearest to the rescue zone off Libya, routinely refuse entry to such ships, leading to tense standoffs at sea. In Italy, investigations of aiding illegal immigration have been launched against captains of humanitarian rescue boats, but so far none has been formally charged.
"I'm not going to apologize for saving lives," said Charlie Andreasson, a 54-year-old Swedish sailor.
Andreasson, who has also joined activists attempting to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip, thought he had done his last Mediterranean rescue mission last year, but said the anti-migrant rhetoric he encountered in his home country made him think again.
"The situation is deteriorating in Europe when it comes to xenophobia and racism," Andreasson said. "So that's why I came back."
The swearing-in of a new government in Italy may herald a change in approach toward the humanitarian rescue ships, but it's unclear whether any policy shift would take effect in time to affect the current mission of the Ocean Viking. Former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a hardliner on migration, regularly lambasted the rescue groups on social media and accused them of collusion with human traffickers, which they strongly denied.
A Section on 09/09/2019
Print Headline: Once saved, migrant now rescues others