THE RESPONDER RESCUE SHIP

We were lucky enough to stumble upon Jenelle Eli’s twitter and were captivated by her live updates from The Red Cross's Responder rescue ship she was aboard. We reached out to Jenelle and were lucky enough to interview her and a doctor aboard the ship about their experience and the incredible work they are doing. Jenelle and Dr. De Souza both worked on The Responder where people rescued by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) were transferred to for medical care, food, water, clothes, and essentials to keep them alive while they traveled to Europe. The work they did is incredibly humbling and we were honored to get a glimpse into their experiences and bring attention to the larger refugee crisis at hand.

Jenelle Eli

How did you get involved with the Red Cross and what eventually led you to volunteering on the Responder?

I have been working with refugees—both in the US and abroad—for more than 10 years. The Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers always seemed to be present during refugee crises and that really stuck with me. As the Syrian refugee crisis started to intensify, I wanted to get more involved—so I took a job with the American Red Cross, where I received training to deploy during international emergencies.  

Right now, there are more refugees than at any point in recorded history. Every minute, 24 people are forced to flee their homes. Seeing reports of people drowning at sea—as they flee for their lives—was shocking, terrifying really. It’s hard to imagine how bad things must be on land for people to risk the choppy sea. So when the Red Cross Red Crescent asked if I could contribute to the life-saving mission in the Mediterranean Sea for a month, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. In an ever-divisive world, I love being part of a global network that takes action to prevent human suffering. No one deserves to die at sea regardless of race, religion, gender, or visa status. The Red Cross Red Crescent can’t solve the underlying issues that force people to leave their home countries, but we can help prevent further loss of life at sea aboard the Responder.

 

Photo by Mathieu Willcocks/MOAS.

Could you walk us through a typical (I am sure no two days were alike or identical) day? Or outline the timeline of a day’s duties?

During “rescue days,” everyone on the Responder wakes up around 4:30am. We grab caffeine and head upstairs to search for vessels in distress. It’s still dark outside, so we watch the radar and stand under the stars to scan the horizon with binoculars. Once we spot and confirm a wooden boat or rubber dinghy with migrants in trouble, we jump into action. The rescuers from Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) throw life jackets to the passengers, keep them calm, and pull them aboard the Responder. It’s a really intense and precise operation. As soon as they board, a Red Cross Red Crescent doctor does a quick scan for medical emergencies. If someone is in really bad shape, they’re taken to the infirmary and treated. We get the migrants seated, distribute water, and tell them they’re safe. The Red Cross Red Crescent medical team does a more comprehensive health check on all the passengers, so they can address things like dehydration, hypothermia, hyperthermia, and other ailments. It takes 24-72 hours to reach Sicily from where people are rescued, so during that time, we provide food, water, blankets, dry clothes, and of course medical care. There’s always a doctor or nurse available. We also provide childcare and emotional support to people – many of whom just survived one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives.   

 

Photo by Yara Naradi & The Italian Red Cross.

What were some of the things that surprised you the most while being on the ship? The morale of those you were assisting, the emotions you felt, or some other unexpected factor?

We tend to view refugees and asylum seekers as helpless—as people to be pitied. And while it’s true that families fleeing their homes need help, there’s another side of them that often goes unseen: the resilient side. Aboard the Responder, we rescued people from an incredibly dangerous situation. They were shaken. They were cold. They were thankful. On the long journey from international waters to Sicily, we witnessed humanity’s amazing ability to stay strong and keep hope alive. Kids played and parents laughed; migrants took care of one another; teenagers helped us distribute food and clear the drains; people sang; and a couple separated at the Libyan coast reunited on board and smiled for hours. Everyone I spoke to was grateful for the help and made it clear that they’re eager to be independent, work hard, and play their part in making this world a better place. For me, it was a great reminder that refugees, like all of us, hold a range of emotions, hopes, and dreams for their lives.  

 

Photo by Yara Nardi & The Italian Red Cross.

Could you share the toughest day on the ship and the best?

I think my toughest day and best day were one in the same! We met a commercial vessel in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea around 2:00 in the morning. The vessel had saved 279 men, women, and children from drowning and transferred them to the Responder so we could care for them. The rescue team pulled the migrants over a gulf in the sea to get them onto our boat. They were calm, but tense hours. The Red Cross Red Crescent doctor and nurses checked every person for urgent medical issues. We handed out t-shirts to those whose clothes had been soaked; we made sure they had water; cared for women who were pregnant; and got a bit of food in their stomachs. It was 6:00am by the time we took a small break—just as the sun was rising. It seemed to me that every person on the Responder watched the sky and acknowledged that it was a new day, in every single sense.

Photo by Yara Nardi & The Italian Red Cross.


How can healthcare providers help if they aren’t able to volunteer time on a ship?

Healthcare workers (and anyone really!) can volunteer with refugees and immigrants in their own communities. There are families all over the United States who have found safety here and are trying to make a new life. They often need help navigating their new communities and the healthcare system, as well. There’s an amazing book called, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, that addresses the cultural divide between some refugee patients and their doctors/nurses. It’s definitely recommended reading for any healthcare worker.

Otherwise, I would encourage healthcare workers to spread the word about this crisis, so we don’t become complacent! And people can support the Red Cross Red Crescent’s work with migrants by donating at ifrc.org.

 

Doctor Kimberly de Souza

How did you get involved with the Red Cross and what eventually led you to volunteering on the Responder?

I first got involved when I responded to a Red Cross appeal for doctors following the Haiti earthquake in 2010.  As a member of the Canadian Red Cross’s Emergency Response Unit, I make myself available to deploy to emergency zones with the Red Cross as early as 24-48 hours after a disaster strikes.

I entered the medical profession to simply help people in all situations. The medical skill set is unique because it is portable and essential to improving health outcomes. I was drawn to work on the Responder rescue ship because of my desire to work closely with migrants and to apply my emergency medicine skill set to a unique, resource-limited setting.

Photo by Mathieu Willcocks/MOAS.

Could you walk us through a day in the life on the ship?

Days begin early at 5am. We muster on the captain’s bridge and begin to scan the waters for migrants with binoculars and radar. If migrants are spotted, they are carefully brought on board and medically triaged for health problems. The Red Cross provides post rescue healthcare, food, water and clothing.

How can doctors and nurses reading this who want to get involved and possibly volunteer on the ship help?

Start internally and create a mindset of flexibility and adaptability. Network with colleagues who have had international health experience and learn as much as you can about people’s experiences. Reading about the Red Cross’s work at ifrc.org is a good place to see if these experiences may suit you. It is helpful to diversify your medical skill set to include pediatrics, obstetrics and basic procedures if possible. Furthermore, it is helpful to work or locum in a rural community to appreciate the challenges of resource-limited environment.

 

Photo by Mathieu Willcocks/MOAS.