[Interview] The care team, a crucial link with rescued people onboard Ocean Viking


Since April 2020 and the announcement of the end of our partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), SOS MEDITERRANEE has been exploring the possibility of partnering with another experienced humanitarian organisation for the provision of care, protection and medical activities complementing our core operation, the search and rescue of people in distress at sea. In the meantime, our team on board the Ocean Viking has included professional staff who have been ensuring comprehensive care of the survivors on board.

On July 19, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and SOS MEDITERRANEE announced that the IFRC was launching an emergency appeal to join our teams onboard the Ocean Viking as of August 2021. In the framework of this upcoming partnership, the IFRC will provide post-rescue support, such as medical care, psychological support, protection activities as well as basic necessities to the people who have been safely brought onboard the Ocean Viking. The team will include at least a medical doctor, a nurse, a midwife and professionals who can provide psychological support and assist those who are particularly vulnerable and in need of extra protection, such as unaccompanied minors and victims of human trafficking. A care and a medical SOS MEDITERRANEE team members will be part of this team.

Before this new partnership starts, we look back at the experience and knowledge gathered by our crew on the provision of care onboard our rescue ship over this past year. Read this interview of Riad, our care team leader currently onboard.

Riad, 38 years old, was born in Algiers, Algeria. He has been living in Rome, Italy, since he was 14 and has worked as a cultural mediator for the past 14 years, in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Italy, for the Italian refugee Council, Caritas and more recently the Italian Red Cross. He worked in several settings such as hotspots in Lampedusa and quarantine ships in Sicily. Riad joined SOS MEDITERRANEE in January 2021, first as a cultural mediator because he “wanted to help people proactively, from the frontline” and is currently the leader of the care team on the Ocean Viking for the second time.

Who is part of the care team onboard the Ocean Viking?

The care team is made of a Care Team Leader (CTL), a cultural mediator (CM) and a logistician.
The Cultural Mediator is a crucial link between the crew and the rescued people. S/he is not a translator or a security officer, but a sort of “brother” or “sister” for the rescued people. S/he works hand in hand with the CTL and the logistician to take care of the survivors on deck. As the CM knows the different cultural sensibilities and speaks several languages fluently, s/he is seen as a reassuring figure and is the best asset to successfully manage crowd control on deck.
The Care Team Leader supervises life on deck. S/he is the one setting up the registration process for rescued people once they arrive on deck and the one organising shifts for deck watches, 24/7. All the SOS MEDITERRANEE crew is participating in deck watches, to make sure that the rescued people have everything they need, to flag any medical cases, and to organise social activities (music, drawing, games, etc.).

The logistician prepares the distribution of food for the rescued people and supervises any material needs they may have. S/he is also responsible for all the maintenance work on deck.

auf der Ocean Viking wird die Verteilung von Essenspaketen vorbereitet

How are the survivors taken care of upon their arrival onboard the Ocean Viking?

During a rescue, while the search and rescue team is operating on the water, the care team and all hands available on deck are preparing for the arrival of the shipwrecked people. Most of the time, the first gesture will be to help the survivors remove their lifejacket before walking them to their dedicated shelter or to the medical clinic depending on their health state. As survivors may have spent up to several days on overcrowded boats without moving and often without drinking or eating, their legs often fail them once on deck.

Registrierung an Bord

Once everyone is onboard, the care team sets up the registration process to detect any vulnerabilities among survivors. Unaccompanied minors are given a yellow bracelet and all the survivors receive a bracelet with a number, of a specific colour for each rescue. The care team makes sure that families are reunited. Then, everyone receives a rescue kit with a set of clothes, a towel, a blanket, water and energy bars (see photo below). Rescued people are asked to change clothes as theirs are soaked with fuel most of the time.

Following the registration of all survivors, the CTL gives a welcome speech in English, French and Arabic. S/he explains that people are safe and that we do not have information yet on the location and time of disembarkation but emphasizes that they will never be returned to Libya. S/he introduces the role of journalists and the communications team onboard – to bear witness to what is happening in the Central Mediterranean. S/he also reminds everyone to drink enough water and rest. Rescued people usually sleep straight after the speech, may it be during the day or at night, as they are exhausted from the time spent at sea and the high stress endured.

The first 24 hours are decisive on deck. The care team works tirelessly for people to remain calm and safe, sharing information and explaining the rules to follow. We are in constant state of hyper-vigilance. With sometimes over 400 survivors on deck, the atmosphere can rapidly deteriorate.

How is life on deck organised in the days following the rescue?

A few hours after registration, the care team organises food distribution, made of a 24-hour kit (see photo below).

This food kit contains 2,000 calories for rescued people to recover some strength. If there aren’t too many people on deck and if weather permits, our care team can cook some rice for the survivors and plan showers for everyone in the next days. But this is quite rare onboard. A washing machine is also available, depending on the situation. While waiting for a Place of Safety, life on deck slowly gets organised with breakfast every morning and distribution of the 24-hour kits in the beginning of the evening. Rescued people often ask if they can support our team for the food distribution or for small works on deck. Giving them this opportunity to help us is crucial to restore a sense of dignity and of control over their lives over a temporary period of time at least. Whenever possible, the care team also provides games, musical instruments, papers and pencils to create some social life on deck. In the meantime, the other team members take turns on the deck to clean, monitor the overall atmosphere, and identify potential vulnerabilities to be reported to the medical team, who also does deck consultations.

After 24 hours, we can see some of the survivors’ faces start changing. When arriving onboard the Ocean Viking, a 15-year-old boy may look like he is 40. With time, providing them with care and attention, treating them with respect and dignity, can bring light back into their eyes.

Kleinkind in Sicherheit auf der Ocean Viking

Photos: Claire Juchat and Flavio Gasperini / SOS MEDITERRANEE