For Mary, 20 years old, it is the second time on the Aquarius as part of the SOS Méditerranée search and rescue team. She previously joined a search and rescue team in Lesvos and has continued working in a refugee camp in northern Greece.
When she was 16 she went to UWC Atlantic College, which is located in Wales on the coast of the Bristol channel. Amongst other activities, the college offers a rescue boat service where she received her training in driving rescue boats.
In the course of her studies at art school, Mary went to Lesvos and volunteered on the rescue boats of the organization Seawatch, to document the refugee crisis for her final project in photojournalism. She soon realized that she would rather trade her camera and give a helping hand during the rescues, “When I was there my whole perspective on my life and what I wanted to do completely changed. I still have a lot of respect for photojournalists and the work that they do, but it wasn’t for me. And I could tell straight away that if I had to make a choice, I would definitely want to be on the helping side.”
What followed were positions on rescue boats in Lesvos and as a RHIB driver on the Minden out in the Mediterranean, before she was suggested to SOS Méditerranée who were in need of someone quickly joining their search and rescue team. After staying aboard the Aquarius for 6 weeks last fall, Mary went back to Greece to work in a refugee camp in Thessaloniki, where she is still working today. But SOS Med stayed on her mind, “I absolutely loved it. Ever since I was in Greece all I wanted to do is come back here. I really enjoy it, there is no better feeling than that of helping another human being in some way and there is no better way of helping someone than by saving their life.”
Just as for other members of the SOS Search and Rescue Team, the rescues of the Aquarius differed greatly from her previous experiences as RHIB driver in Lesvos, “Out here, it is still similar people fleeing in a similar way, but now you have the added factor of open water and much bigger boats. The first boat I saw here had 120 or 130 people on it, that was quite shocking to see” she recounts her first rescue with SOS Med.
The most horrific thing for Mary remains the condition of the people they pull out of the water, “You see the worst cases of human suffering. All these scared faces looking at you. This stuck with me for a while. So many people that have been exploited and tortured, living like animals in such horrible conditions. And how their bodies and their minds are completely traumatized from their experiences. Most of them probably in Libya.”
In particular, she recalls an 18 years old Somalian girl among the rescued who was pregnant, malnourished, and had to be evacuated to Malta to give birth in a hospital, “When it is another woman, who is your age, but is in such a different situation to you, and I am on the opposite side. I am the one helping her up, not the one being helped, it really made me think about the reverse. If I found myself in that situation, what would I do? What would I choose? Would I manage? Would I even survive everything they had been through? We must remember these are the strongest ones that have made it this far. The weaker ones would not even make it through the desert. You start asking yourself these questions, and hopefully it never will be a reality for us.”
When asked about her opinion on the role of NGOs in doing search and rescue operations, Mary is torn, “I am very glad that the NGOs are here doing this job, but it should not be the job of the NGOs at all. It is the EU’s responsibility to respond to this crisis. I see it in Greece and I am seeing it here, they do not respond in an adequate way. If we were not here, would the EU do our job? We do not know. If they did not, thousands and thousands more would die and no one would know because we are the eyes of the crisis as well as the rescuers. And obviously as an NGO we cannot let that happen, we cannot take that risk.”
“We must continue our work of search and rescue but at the same time denounce the continuous lack of adequate response to people drowning at sea. Looking at it from today, we are still out here, several organisations have been set up, the public supports it and backs it. But still today there are not enough search and rescue means to stop people from dying, and Europe has not caught up with its responsibility at all.”