Portraits of female refugees

Josephine, 7, and her sister Catherine, 5, spend their two days on the Aquarius singing, shouting, playing word games, running around, and, in the words of one MSF team member, “generally charming the socks out of everyone they meet.” Meanwhile, their mother, Dominique, 35, starts to explain how they came here: “I have four children. Actually, five, because I’m pregnant. Josephine and Catherine are the youngest. When I was 18, my family took me out of high school to marry me off to a man who was over 60 and already had four wives. Their father’s family has already married my girls off to older men, and I hope one day I’ll be able to get them out of there.” She fled the country with the help of friends and met her current husband, Patric, at a safe house in Côte d’Ivoire. Last year, with the two girls in tow, Patric and Dominique fled Côte d’Ivoire after Patric was threatened for his political activities. They go to Libya, but are kidnapped, subjected to forced labour, and have to witness murder, rape and torture. “When the Europeans try to prevent people from  crossing the Mediterranean, they aren’t accomplishing anything. Because when people have sunk that low in life, they are willing to drown in the sea if there’s any hope of reaching a boat”, Dominique says. By the time Dominique has finished her story, the girls have fallen asleep. “My girls are intelligent. They know how to read, they know how to count. I want them to go to school, I want them to grow up somewhere where people are free.”

Anna is from Cameroon and has studied management. She had to flee her homeland because of death threats following a family feud. Her first stop was Algeria.  “As a Christian, I needed to hide my beliefs and to cover myself all the time”, the 26-year-old explains.  She lived with the relative of a friend, who owned a liquor store that also served as a brothel. She ran away to escape prostitution and went to Libya. But there things only got worse: “If you are black, you’re nothing. Men are subjected to forced labour and women are raped.” A Libyan bought her freedom and those of several other prisoners, but they were again subjected to forced labour and rape. With the help of a friend she is able to pay smugglers who bring her to the coast. There she meets her new best friend: Oumar, a Muslim from Senegal. Eventually the two are rescued on the Mediterranean by the Aquarius. She can still hardly believe it:  “Here, on the boat, with all these friendly people around, I wonder if I’m not dreaming, if I’m not going to wake up soon and hear a Libyan saying, ‘Come, come, I want to sleep with you.’ I can’t believe I’m finally safe.”

11 December 2016: On a little wooden boat with 36 passengers, of which 7 were women and 8 unaccompanied minors, was also 9 months pregnant Cynthia, who was already counting down the hours. She left everything behind in Nigeria when her husband passed away, just to find herself alone on this little boat, bucketed around by the waves. Fortunately, the crew of the Aquarius locates the cockleshell and four boats were rescued that day. Around 4 AM, Cynthia’s contractions set in, and the next day, around 1 PM, she gives birth to a beautiful baby boy: “It had been a very long day and we were all very tired, but this birth made everyone so happy! This baby brought a lot of joy on board,” said Marina Kojima, then MSF midwife aboard the Aquarius.