Volunteers step in to fill void in European migrant crisis

AP News
Posted: Apr 22, 2015 3:10 PM
Volunteers step in to fill void in European migrant crisis

ABOARD THE PHOENIX (AP) — From the bridge of their 130-foot refitted yacht, Christopher and Regina Catrambone are stepping in to fill the void they say has been left by an ineffective European response to the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

The Malta-based insurance entrepreneurs are among legions of volunteers working with the Italian coast guard, non-governmental groups and others to save lives and meet the basic needs of migrants who survive treacherous crossings from Libya. The European Union as a whole will be asked to do more at an emergency summit Thursday.

The couple founded the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station in 2013 after the drowning of 366 people off the island of Lampedusa, and are gearing up for a six-month tour of duty rescuing migrants in need.

"Nobody deserves to die out at sea in such desperation," Regina Catrambone said from the Phoenix, docked in the Marsa boatyard near Valletta, Malta's capital.

The Catrambones are joined in the volunteer effort by people like 21-year-old Ibrahima D'Amic, a Muslim refugee from Senegal who was rescued from a rubber dinghy in 2013 off Sicily and now spends his free time handing out sandwiches and helping new arrivals in his adopted hometown of Catania.

"A poor guy helping a poor," D'Amic says of himself. "I wish I could do more."

D'Amic works with the Sant'Egidio Community, a Catholic aid group that helps refugees. He is often seen at night delivering food to the homeless on Catania's streets, though these days as he waits for his asylum application to be reviewed, he is also helping to prepare welcome kits of toothbrushes and other necessities for new arrivals.

"I have been so grateful," D'Amic says of his chance at a new life. "But if someone ask me 'What are the things you did in your life which you regret most,' it is coming through the sea."

The Catrambones hope to give more people like him a chance. They founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station in response to Pope Francis' call for ordinary people to reverse the "globalization of indifference" that has long confronted refugees seeking a better life in Europe.

"We believe search and rescue is the number one priority," Christopher Catrambone said. "More assets should be put out there because more deaths are going to happen."

With the Phoenix and two rigid-hulled rubber boats, the team will head out into the Mediterranean May 2 along with two doctors and a nurse from Doctors Without Borders. MOAS works with local search and rescue authorities, using its own drones to locate and photograph ships in distress and relay the coordinates to authorities. The MOAS teams respond themselves when directed to do so, providing initial rescue and medical care until authorized ships arrive on the scene.

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The team is headed by a former Maltese defense chief and consists of about 20 people. In its first year of operation, some 3,000 people were rescued over 60 days, said Christopher Catrambone, a native of New Orleans who moved to Malta with his Italian wife and their daughter in 2008.

In its first year, MOAS was funded entirely by the Catrambone family. Last fall, they launched a crowd-funding initiative to help defray the 600,000 euro ($644,000) a month operating costs.

"None of us want these catastrophes to happen anymore," Regina Catrambone said. "Nobody wants to see the Mediterranean as a cemetery."


Thomas reported from Catania, Sicily.