Log entry #73

“A bridge between maritime and humanitarian worlds” – Madeleine Habib, new SAR Coordinator on board the Aquarius

Madeleine Habib, is the new SAR Coordinator on board the SOS MEDITERRANEE rescue ship Aquarius. After three weeks training, she took full command of her role on board the Aquarius, on the 9th September 2017, when she became the first female SAR Co since the beginning of SOS MEDITERRANEE’s rescue mission in the Central Mediterranean.

The SAR area is not a new environment to her. In 2015 and 2016 she has been captain of the Dignity I, one of the MSF’s rescue ships in the Central Mediterranean. Before that, Madeleine Habib had sailed all over the world, on board the most various vessels, involved in the most various missions.

Madeleine worked at Greenpeace ships for 15 years, thereof 3 years as a captain. She  was a boat logistician in Yemen for MSF; a Master on a Pacific voyage studying underwater volcanos in Fijian waters, and on a voyage to the Kimberlies she researched the Leeuwin Current. As Chief mate and Second mate on the Astrolabe she did Voyages to French Antarctic base Dumont D’Urville and also to Macquarie Island… etc., etc.. Her résumé is like a map of the world. And you would need at least a world tour to listen to the story of this woman who wanted to be a journalist and became a captain busy saving humans and their planet.

Laura Garel and Hara Kaminara had the opportunity to ask her a few questions on a rare quiet day in the Central Mediterranean.

Laura: “Madeleine, would you like to tell us first about your relationship with the Sea?”

Madeleine: “I’ve been at sea for thirty years now, the 1st time I went sailing I was 22 years old. I had already decided that my career would be a journalist. I went sailing for a week and I just felt fused with my environment, I couldn’t leave the wheel and I thought “this is it, this is just the perfect challenge”. Physical challenge, mental challenge, it’s a challenge for adventure, and basically I packed my bags and I left on a sailing boat and 2 years later I returned to visit my family and I was getting my first captain’s licence. That was in north Queensland. My family lives in Australia and there is a very famous area called the Whit Sundays. I visited my parents who had just moved there and I took that opportunity to go sailing and I just loved it.

I think that people have very different relationship to the sea, and I think that my relationship with the sea has changed over the years. I get homesick for the sea, and when I smell the sea after a long time being on land, it really stir something inside me and that surprises me. Because I’m not really aware how much I’m missing it, until when I smell the sea, all kinds of different smells, the warm and tropical waters, cold Antarctic waters. I have quite a developed sense of smell of the sea, and I can’t imagine not having the sea in my life. But for other people the sea is a place that they fear, they don’t understand it. They get seasick, they resent it, it’s an obstacle, a barrier, but for me it is a place where I feel I can shine.”

Laura: “Then how did you happen to work as a humanitarian?”

Madeleine: “I was very committed to working on boats but that didn’t satisfy everything inside me. So basically, I was working on boats and in between I was working as a volunteer in social justice projects, environmental projects, and I had this dream that one day I would work on a Greenpeace ship… and eventually I manifested that dream! And over a period of 15 years I was working on Greenpeace vessels and I worked my way up to captain on board the ships and participated in many environmental campaigns all over the world.  At the same time I felt that there were other things that I cared about, that I wanted to participate in, and so I was taking time out from Greenpeace and I did my first mission with MSF in 2002, and that helped me feel that I was doing something not just for the environment but working for humanity as well, and social justice and welfare. These are all things on the planet I do really care about and if I can dedicate my life to those things I’m very happy to do that.”

Laura: “And what drove you to be here now, on board the Aquarius, in the Central Mediterranean Sea, with SOS MEDITERRANEE?”

Madeleine “The Mediterranean migrants crisis has been unfolding over several years. The first time I ever got in contact, even with the concept of what was really going on here was actually on a Greenpeace ship. We did an action and stopped a vessel that was discharging illegally harvested timber in a port in Portugal. And the captain’s reaction was really extreme. It was way beyond his reaction as it should have been for us simply interfering with his business, and we realized later on that he had 20 or 30 stowed away illegal migrants on board his vessel so he was actually trafficking people into Europe. That was my first contact with the migrants crisis and I thought « what would your life be like that you would make that journey, you would make that choice?». In 2015, the migrant’s crisis was really in the world news and I heard that MSF was deploying a vessel in the Mediterranean to address this crisis and I wanted to be part of it. So I was fortunate enough to be on board the MSF vessel Dignity I in 2015 early 2016, and to be part of that project. While I was there, I could see that there was some kind of a place that needed a bridge between maritime and humanitarian, and I thought “what a perfect role that would be for me if I find this role where I could be the bridge between having my maritime experience and being a humanitarian, and being search and rescue coordinator for SOS MEDITERRANEE on board the Aquarius, in the Mediterranean, migrant crisis, I feel that it is a really perfect place for me.

Early this year, I was actually trying to do some courses and training so that I could be the most valuable asset to be able to present myself to NGOs as this kind of bridge and I was looking at various organisations, where I could find the place and this is the perfect opportunity.”

Laura: “How come you are so interested in the Mediterranean migrant crisis?”

Madeleine: “I come from a mixed family my father is from Egypt and my mother from Scotland. In the early 60ies my father migrated from Egypt to the UK. He was fortunate that he could simply fly there and he sought political asylum while he was in the UK. At that time in the 60ies he was a qualified doctor, it was quite easy for him to do that, but he never actually in his lifetime received British citizenship so I can very much feel for people that have that kind of stateless sensation and who never are recognized by a particular country. My father was fortunate. The rest of my family have also largely been displaced from Egypt over the recent years, they are Coptic, a very persecuted minority in Egypt now, and it has become very difficult for people to live in Egypt.

People are fleeing their countries for very different kind of reasons. I’m not here to judge. Nobody on board the Aquarius is here to judge why people have fled their home. But people don’t leave their home unless they have a very good reason. So for us to save lives, we don’t judge whose life it is, or what it is they are fleeing, they are here simply to save their lives. And when I see the kind of boats that people are travelling on, they are not the kind of boats that you’d voluntarily choose to be on board, people are forced to be into this situation, and it is an act of desperation, people are not doing this because they think that it is a good idea they are doing it because they have no choice.

I believe in fundamental human rights, I believe in people’s right to try to improve their lives, to seek for the best that they can for themselves and for their families. If you’re born into certain countries, you face such huge obstacles to try and achieve things that some of us are fortunate enough to take for granted.”