More than 35,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach Italy between January and the middle of May this year, risking their lives to cross the sea in search of better lives in Europe. Last year, more than 170,000 migrants landed on Italy’s shores.
Many of the people rescued from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats arrive on the island of Sicily. While providing lifesaving support to people in distress aboard the rescue ship MY Phoenix, MSF provides medical assistance to arriving migrants in the port of Pozzallo, in southern Sicily’s Ragusa province.
The MSF team – made up of doctors, nurses and cultural mediators – work alongside staff from the Italian Ministry of Health in screening the new arrivals for health issues and providing them with medical assistance, both in the hours after they disembark and during their stay in the primary reception centre.
In 2014, MSF teams in Italy screened the health of 26,081 newly arrived migrants and carried out 2,594 medical examinations and 700 mental health assessments. During the first three months of 2015, they conducted 1,349 health screenings and 566 medical examinations.
In the secondary reception centre in Ragusa province, where migrants await the results of their claims for asylum, an MSF mental health team of two psychologists is on hand to provide psychological support.
They provide both one-off counselling sessions and longer-term support and refer those with more serious mental health issues to a psychiatrist.
Anna, 21, is one such migrant who first left Eritrea as a child. On her journey to a better life, she has been arrested, tied up, beaten, robbed, walked non-stop and been stranded out at sea. “I want to study and bring peace back to my country,” she says.
Another young migrant, seventeen-year-old football prodigy Mohamed, fled Syria after a bomb killed one of his teammates. Golleh, 20, from the Gambia, lost his parents at a young age and decided to leave. These are their stories.
Dreams of football stardom shattered by war
Mohamed had always dreamed of a career in international football. At the age of 17, he was captain of Syria’s national youth team, despite being their youngest player. He was a striker, number 10 in the team, scoring a record 64 goals in 52 matches.
But on 15 April he left all this behind. Mohamed left Syria to risk everything on a rickety boat crossing the Mediterranean.
“Where is our star?”, “Our star shouldn’t have left us” and “He’s gone to Germany” are some of the posts on Mohamed’s Facebook page, alongside photos and videos showing his prowess on the football field.
At first, Mohamed was so caught up in football that he took little notice of the war. But soon the conflict began to encroach on his daily life. As he took the bus to his training sessions, explosions became more and more frequent.
When explosions happened, he says, he and the other passengers would throw themselves onto the floor between the seats. One day, a bomb exploded on the football pitch in the middle of a match and one of his teammates died. Mohamed realised he did not want to carry on.
At the same time, Mohamed’s eighteenth birthday was looming, bringing with it the prospect of forcible conscription into the Syrian army.
“We decided to leave Syria to protect Mohamed’s future,” says his father.
Accompanied by his father and uncle, Mohamed crossed the border to Turkey and made his way to the port city of Mersin, on the eastern Mediterranean. A distance of just a few hundred kilometres, the journey took 24 hours and was fraught with risk.
Mohamed's family had to cross the mountains on foot, bargain for transport and avoid human traffickers, all against a backdrop of gunfire and explosions.
In Mersin, they found a boat that would take them to Europe: an old merchant ship, into which they were squeezed with hundreds of other Syrians.
By day two, the boat had started to take on water. By the time they were rescued, the boat was barely afloat. It was five more days before they landed on the coast of Sicily.
Speaking to the MSF team, Mohamed sits on a camp bed in the migrants’ reception centre in Pozzallo, surrounded by Syrian families. On the wall behind him are pinned drawings, messages written in Arabic, Syrian flags, and a picture of a leaking boat with the words ‘the death ship’.
But Mohamed will not easily give up on his ambitions.
“I hope that European clubs will read my story and help me pursue my dream to play football,” says Mohamed. “I would like to get to Germany and play for Borussia Dortmund, or to Spain and play for Real Madrid. I cannot go back to Syria – I feel like a deserter.”
Someone brings a ball. Mohamed starts to dribble the ball before bouncing it on his head, then transfers it expertly from foot to knee to shoulder. A circle forms around him. The onlookers clap their hands and shout encouragement. For the first time in days, Mohamed smiles.
“I want to study and bring peace back to my country”
Anna, 21, left Eritrea, but she is determined to return one day. The first time Anna tried to leave Eritrea, she was still a child. Captured and arrested, she was taken to prison, where she was tied up and beaten.
On her release, Anna began to concoct the "perfect plan" to get out of Eritrea. “In Eritrea, escaping is no joke,” she says. “Those who try it risk being executed.”
Anna was still only 16 when she succeeded in crossing the border to neighbouring Ethiopia. Hoping to get permission to join her mother in Israel, she stayed in Ethiopia for five years, but her requests were rejected.
Finally, she decided to leave Ethiopia to embark on the long and dangerous journey to Europe.
The toughest part, says Anna, was in Sudan. After walking for 13 hours non-stop, she got a lift on a pick-up truck, crammed in with 25 other people. Her feet and legs felt as if they were paralysed, she says. In the desert, the truck was stopped by traffickers, who forced them to strip naked as they searched them for money and valuables.
The traffickers stole everything of value – they even took some people’s shoes, leaving them to continue their journey barefoot.
Anna holds on tightly to a copy of the Bible as she speaks. She doesn’t cry, but her eyes water with unshed tears. “I was scared,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would make it. I prayed a lot, I trusted in God.”
In Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, Anna bumped into some people she knew, and together they travelled on to Libya. On the Mediterranean coast, she managed to embark on a wooden boat along with 300 others. Just a few hours after setting off, the boat’s engine caught fire.
The passengers managed to put the flames out with buckets of water, but the engine was damaged beyond repair. Someone called the emergency rescue services, who arrived nine hours later and took them to Pozzallo.
Anna sits in the reception centre in Pozzallo. Like most Eritreans in the centre, she knows some words of Italian, but it is thanks to MSF’s cultural mediator, Negash, that she is able to tell us her story in her native Tigrinya.
“I am alive and I have a lot of faith in God,” says Anna. “I don’t know where I will go – maybe to Belgium, maybe to England – but I do know what I want to do: I want to study Political Science. One day I want to work to bring peace back to my country. I have a very strong desire to go back to Eritrea.”
Much more than a letter
When MSF’s team in Pozzallo received the letter from Golleh, it was a special day.
Golleh, 20, from the Gambia, arrived in the Sicilian port of Pozzalo on a boat from Libya. He was experiencing severe pains in the abdomen, and MSF doctor Anna, who examined him as soon as he disembarked, diagnosed an intestinal infection that had gone untreated for months.
After a course of antibiotics, Golleh felt much better, and by the time he left the reception centre for newly arrived migrants, he had healed.
But some scars leave a mark not on the body, but on the mind. It is the job of Pina and Gaia, two MSF psychologists working in Sicily’s Ragusa province, to provide mental health support to migrants struggling to come to terms with their often traumatic experiences.
Gaia met Golleh in the reception centre where he was staying as he waited for his asylum claim to be processed. Relieved to see MSF again, Golleh told Gaia why he was there, and what had happened on the way.
Four years ago, in the Gambia, both of Golleh’s adoptive parents died. Deprived of his inheritance, living in poverty and completely alone, Golleh decided to leave.
Golleh spent five months in Senegal and a year in Mauritania before making his way to Libya. Unable to pay 500 Libyan dinars, he was imprisoned and forced to work at gunpoint every day for two months to pay off his ‘debt’.
“They checked me day and night, pointing their guns at me, and they beat me,” says Golleh. On his release, he decided to take a boat to Italy.
“Since 2011, when my father died, the first people to take care of me were MSF,” he tells Gaia. That day, Golleh sat down and wrote a letter addressed to the MSF doctor who had treated him when he first arrived in Pozzallo:
I am very happy, and I am writing this letter to greet every one of you. I saw the respect you demonstrate towards the human being. You give the right cure to those who are sick. You always smile because you want us to feel good. For this reason, I want to thank you and pray for you.
Thank you for reading my letter!”