The One-Woman Syrian Rescue Mission

As the migrant crisis continues to swell in Europe, many refugees put their faith in Moroccan-Italian activist Nawal Soufi.

(Image credit: Laura El-Tantaway)

When boats packed with Syrian families began to arrive in Nawal Soufi's home city of Catania, on the Italian island of Sicily, she knew the horrors they were fleeing. In mid-2013, she traveled to Syria as a volunteer to deliver relief supplies to those affected by the violence caused by war and terrorism. One day, in the city of Aleppo, she was kicking a ball around with some local kids when a missile hit, destroying a row of houses across the road. "One moment the children were playing soccer, and the next, 130 of their neighbors were dead," says Soufi, 28, a tall woman wearing skinny jeans and a maroon headscarf over her dark bob. "That was their daily life."

Soufi, who was born in Morocco but has lived in Italy since she was an infant, was determined to help. Over the past two years, she has become a one-woman lifeline for refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea, making it her full-time business to ensure they reach shore safely. Up to 10,000 people arrive in Europe every day from Syria, Afghanistan, and other troubled nations, on overloaded boats operated by ruthless people-smugglers. "The refugees call me Lady SOS," she says. "Often, I am the first person they call in panic when their boats get lost or start to sink."

It is a tough job in the current political climate. As a young Muslim woman from an immigrant background—her father brought the family to Europe from Morocco in the late 1980s for a better life—Soufi is aware that prejudice and misunderstanding surrounding migrants have long existed. But anti-migrant sentiment has escalated sharply worldwide in recent months in the wake of the devastating November 13, 2015, terror attacks in Paris, in which gunmen from extremist group Islamic State (IS) murdered 130 people and wounded almost 400 others. Official investigations revealed that at least one terrorist had most likely entered France from the Middle East by concealing himself among the throngs of asylum seekers, prompting France to announce it was closing its borders temporarily and leading to a surge in support for right-wing policies clamping down on immigration.

Following the Paris attacks, 31 governors in the U.S. announced that Syrian refugees would no longer be welcome in their states, despite the fact that America has accepted only a fraction of Syrians displaced by the current war. Since late 2010, roughly 2,600, or about 0.0006 percent of the total 4.3 million Syrian refugees, have found homes in the U.S. By comparison, Turkey has taken in 2.5 million refugees over the same period, while Germany granted asylum to 80,713 in 2015. In early December, the murders of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, by a Muslim husband and wife, one of whom swore allegiance to IS in a Facebook post, sparked fears of further backlash against both American Muslims and those seeking asylum from Syria and elsewhere. A front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump, called for "a total and complete shutdown" of America's borders to Muslims in the wake of the shootings.

Refugees on a boat

Refugees from Libya are rescued by the Italian Navy, June 2014

(Image credit: Polaris)

From her position on the front lines of the migrant crisis that began long before the Paris attacks, Soufi says the vast majority of those she's seen making the perilous journey are families with young children, college students, and other innocent civilians who have lost everything. "These people are not criminals; they are not terrorists. This is very important to understand," she says in her softly spoken, rapid Italian. "They are ordinary people in desperate circumstances." In many cases, she adds, they are fleeing brutal terrorist mayhem caused by IS, as well as other extremists such as the Taliban and Boko Haram, in their home countries. "It's even more crucial since the Paris attacks to offer refuge to migrants who are trying to get away," she says. "They are victims, too."

Soufi's lifesaving role grew by accident rather than design. Worldwide, about 60 million people are currently displaced from their homelands. In 2015, an estimated 1 million flocked to Europe in the hope of starting new lives. Over a third came from Syria, where millions have been uprooted since civil war broke out in 2011. Many others came from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as unstable or repressive African nations such as Eritrea and Nigeria. The influx has caught Europe unprepared, leaving its 28 nations "politically, morally, and administratively" overwhelmed, according to former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer. Southern Italy and Greece are the closest destinations in Europe for most refugee boats, so when the conflict in Syria intensified, more refugees than ever started arriving in Sicily.

The refugees call me Lady SOS," she says. "Often, I am the first person they call in panic when their boats get lost or start to sink.

At the time, Soufi, who speaks numerous Arabic dialects along with Italian, French, and a little English, was working part-time as a court interpreter. On her days off, she went to Catania's port and train station to help translate for new arrivals. "I handed out my phone number," she says. "Very soon, it was all over the Internet and social-networking sites that Arabic-speaking migrants use to share information. It snowballed from there." Some refugees told her they'd found her number scrawled on walls below deck in traffickers' boats.

Refugees on a boat

The Italian Navy rescues migrants traveling by boat from Africa, June 2014.

(Image credit: Polaris)

Today, Soufi's life revolves around her two cell phones, which buzz constantly with SOS calls and texts—and a Facebook page she set up to post updates about refugees at sea has 44,000 followers. When she receives a distress call, she knows that acting quickly is a matter of life and death. "Often, the callers are hysterical," she says. "They start shouting that their boat is leaking, that a pregnant woman is giving birth, or that their children are freezing." Most of the boats are dilapidated fishing trawlers or rubber dinghies that are unsafe even before they are crammed two or three times over capacity. The traffickers operating the boats, who charge each person between $1,500 and $5,000 for the crossing, normally abandon ship if there are any problems. "Their motive is pure greed," Soufi says. "They don't care about human life."

Traffickers switch routes frequently to evade capture. In recent months, the majority of boats have been landing on the Greek island of Lesbos and other nearby islands. Soufi, who does not belong to any organization and works unpaid, traveled to Greece alone in early November to be closer to rescue operations. On her Facebook page, she posted dramatic videos of boats filled with bedraggled refugees arriving on rocky beaches, as she guided them into shore along with other volunteer rescuers. "The migrants are usually drenched, starving, and very afraid, but also elated when they finally land," she says. One video shows Soufi wading chest-deep into the sea wearing a yellow safety vest as a boat approaches, waving her arms frantically at families on board. "Pass the babies! Pass the babies!" she shouts in English, encouraging them to hand their children to safety in case they fall into the choppy waters.

One sunny afternoon before her trip to Greece, we sit in a hotel garden on a hilltop above Catania. Soufi, who supports her volunteer activities with occasional earnings from court interpreting and donations from local supporters, chose the location to talk because it is quiet. She is oblivious to the magnificent view of nearby Mount Etna, Sicily's famous volcano, and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea below. To her, the beauty is incongruous, almost inappropriate.

Man putting aid packs into car

Soufi and a fellow aid worker pack supplies into a car before visiting a refugee camp in Sicily, October 2015.

(Image credit: Marie Claire)

Last year, more than 3,760 people, including many women and children, drowned or went missing at sea during their desperate journeys to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. But despite the scale of the tragedy, for the most part, attention to the refugees' plight was fleeting. Then, last September, the tiny body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Al-Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach after his flimsy boat capsized. His mother and 5-year-old brother also drowned. Photos of the tragedy released by Turkish news agency Do ̆gan were published on front pages around the globe, belatedly alerting the world to what the United Nations has described as "the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War." New arrivals face many dangers and difficulties, both on their journeys and after they land.

When an SOS call comes in from a boat, Soufi's priority is to find out its position. "The first thing I ask is their exact coordinates by checking the GPS tracker on their phone," she says. Sometimes she has to yell repeatedly to get the panicked caller to calm down and carry out her request. "I have to be forceful, because without knowing where they are, there's little chance of rescuing them," Soufi says. "At any moment, the conversation could be cut off— the phone's battery could die, the signal could be lost, the credit could run out."

She tries to keep the person on the line while she uses her other phone to inform the Italian Coast Guard, which oversees search-and-rescue efforts in Italian waters, that a boat is in trouble. She translates their instructions so the refugees can be picked up safely. "I tell them they must not move when they see a rescue ship," Soufi says. "If they all scramble to one side of the boat to get off, it will capsize." She isn't sure how many frantic calls for help she has fielded since she started—she hasn't counted—but she estimates that she has helped save "many thousands" of lives. "The last thing I say to the people on the boat is, 'See you on land,'" she says. "Being alone in the vast Mediterranean Sea is terrifying, so I try to keep their spirits up."

While we talk in the breezy hilltop garden, Soufi's eyes dart toward the screens of her phones on the table every few seconds. Being a vital point of contact for so many people in peril is a huge responsibility, though she says it comes naturally to her. "I learned the spirit of taking care of people who have left their homelands from my parents," she says. Her father was a poorly paid construction site manager in Morocco who never forgot his roots after they moved to Italy. "When I was growing up, my father would often call my mother and ask her to make more food for dinner because he had invited some newly arrived migrants to our house. Such hospitality is part of our culture."

Refugee parents and kids

Syrian families wait at the train station in Catania to board a train to Milan, April 2015.

(Image credit: Marie Claire)

With Sicily's proximity to countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt—a normal sea crossing averages 12 to 16 hours—the island has a long history of receiving refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. Europe's largest camp, Mineo, which houses more than 4,000 people, is based in a remote village outside Catania. Soufi began volunteering there at 14, collecting donations of food, clothes, and cash for the refugees. As a child, she was a talented soccer player, but that ended when her father accidentally ran over her foot with his car. The accident did no lasting damage, but she fell out of the habit

of playing during her recovery. "Since then, I have used all my energy advocating for refugees," she says. "I have always been attracted to activism—my parents say I was born with a megaphone in my mouth."

Perhaps because of her passionate intensity, Soufi looks about five years younger than her 28 years. Wolfing down a bag of chips, she talks with the distracted air of a teenager who eats solely to refuel. She lives with her parents and her younger brother in their small house outside Catania, and has an older brother and sister who have both left home. While the whole family supports her activities, she says, they can't match her tireless level of dedication. "Occasionally, I have given the phone to one of my family members or a friend to take SOS calls for me, but they always hand it back after a short time," she says. "They say it is too stressful."

For Syrian refugee Tamira, 24, Soufi represented a source of hope for her and her two older brothers before they even started out on their journey from Syria to Sicily in October 2014. "My brothers got Nawal's number from Syrian friends who had already reached Europe," Tamira says, speaking via an interpreter over the telephone from the German city of Münster, where she has received political asylum. "They said we should call her if we ran into danger." The number was so precious that one of her brothers wrote it on his shirt hem in permanent ink. 

Tamira had just started medical school to become an anesthetist in her home city of Homs when Syria's civil unrest began. Her father, who was critical of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, disappeared in 2013. "We believe the army murdered him," says Tamira, who doesn't want her last name published. "My mother said we had to leave the country— otherwise we could be targeted next." 

It took a year for Tamira's mother to raise the money to escape. She sold their house, their car, and all their possessions, but even then, there was only enough cash to send Tamira and her two brothers to Europe. "The traffickers wanted $25,000 per person for the whole journey from Syria to Germany, so my mother had to stay behind," Tamira says. After a hazardous trip over land to Egypt, during which the three siblings were robbed, they were put in an old fishing boat to Sicily. "We were told there would only be 100 passengers, but there were nearly 300," she says. "There were no toilets, so we weren't allowed to eat at all. We were only given a tiny amount of water to drink."

Asylum seekers on a boat

Asylum seeker son board an Italian Navy ship, June 2014.

(Image credit: Marie Claire)

Tamira estimates that they had been sailing for almost two days when they hit rough seas. "It was the middle of the night, completely black," she remembers. "The boat wasn't going anywhere—it was just being tossed around in circles on the waves. Many people were crying and vomiting, especially the children. We all thought we were going to die." In the end, it wasn't one of her brothers who got through to Soufi, but another passenger who also had her number. "The man who called her shouted, 'Nawal says help is coming! Help is coming, thanks to God!'" she says. "Everyone knew Nawal's name, so we were very relieved." It was another petrifying 11 hours before a rescue boat arrived, but all on board survived. Today, Tamira is back in medical school in her new home country and hopes to bring her mother over if she can find a safer way. "I could never let her go through the ordeal that we experienced," she says. 

Of course, some disasters can't be prevented by Soufi or any other rescuer. The worst incident to date in the Mediterranean Sea occurred last April, when as many as 850 refugees crammed into a sinking ship drowned off the coast of Libya. Some were trapped underwater because traffickers had locked them below deck. Several months later, in August, Soufi received a distress call from a Syrian man on a boat on which 250 people died. "The man shouted that water was coming on deck and flooding the engine," she says. "I could hear the waves in the background, and then the call went dead." She alerted the search-and-rescue services, but the vessel sank before they located it. "I posted messages on Facebook to see if the man who called me had survived," Soufi says. "But I heard nothing."

Such losses, she says, are "very upsetting," but the successful rescues motivate her to keep going. A few months ago, "I was visiting a group of Syrian refugees at a shelter, and there was a man with a broken leg in plaster," she says. "He asked me, 'Are you Nawal?' When I said yes, he hobbled off his bed and hugged me and kissed my hand." The man told her that someone on his boat had called her, and three minutes later, the vessel had sunk. Thanks to her, the coast guard was able to get there in time. "He said I had saved over 200 lives that day," Soufi says. "I was very happy and grateful to hear that."

We were told there would only be 100 passengers, but there were nearly 300," she says. "There were no toilets, so we weren't allowed to eat at all. We were only given a tiny amount of water to drink."—Tamira, refugee

Given the power and reach of European governments, it seems an anomaly that a lone young woman in southern Italy has become such a crucial lifeline. Ramzi Harrabi, president of the Immigrants Council for the Province of Siracusa in Sicily, a local body that advocates for refugee rights, says Soufi's role as Lady SOS is easily explained. "The refugee situation is very chaotic," Harrabi says. "There is little coordination between different government agencies and organizations, so there are many gaps in the system for people like Nawal to fill." While Harrabi praises the efforts of the Italian Coast Guard—their vessels reportedly saved 4,400 people from 22 boats in a single day last August—he says it is not easy for refugees to communicate with them directly. "The refugees prefer to call Nawal first because she can speak with them in their language and reassure them," he says. "They know she is a real person who is committed to helping them, not some anonymous official." 

Still, working outside the system also carries risks for Soufi. A European regulation known as the Dublin Agreement states, generally, that refugees must be fingerprinted and that their claims for asylum be processed in the country in which they first land. But many migrants don't want to stay in Italy or Greece, preferring to make their way to wealthier countries like Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland, where they have a better chance of finding employment and housing, or to join relatives who are already there. It is technically illegal for Soufi to help refugees with their onward journeys within European borders, but she feels she has no choice. "It is too easy for refugees to fall prey to local traffickers who want to exploit them," she says. "Many people are like babies when they arrive—Europe is a totally alien environment for them." Soufi helps them to buy train tickets so they can leave Italy or Greece for the standard fare of about 50 euros ($54) per person, instead of being tricked by traffickers who try to sell them tickets for upwards of 400 euros ($435). She also doles out advice about how to buy local SIM cards and about not drinking water from bottles with unsealed tops in case it's been drugged.

Soufi has never been arrested for her activities, but she has come close as a result of misunderstandings about her volunteer role. "A few months ago, I heard the Italian Prosecutor's Office wanted to arrest me on suspicion of being a trafficker," she says. "I was very worried, so I went to the police straight away to explain that my work is purely humanitarian. I showed them evidence, and they let me go." (To protect herself, she keeps recordings of most SOS calls and also records videos at the train station.)

Woman on the phone

Soufi pictured outside Sicily\'s Camp Mineo, October 2015.

(Image credit: Laura El-Tantawy)

The Paris attacks have provoked mixed reactions from European governments, with countries such as Germany remaining committed to welcoming refugees, and others such as Poland wanting to tighten their borders. Soufi believes the European Union should open up a "humanitarian corridor" that would allow refugees to travel without risk of detention to countries that will accept them. But any change that allows greater freedom of movement inside Europe is now unlikely owing to heightened fears about militants loyal to IS crossing borders unnoticed. 

Adding to the anxiety, at least 32 of the suspects identified in the New Year's Eve mayhem, which included sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, were asylum seekers, and the suicide bomber in the January 12 attack in Istanbul was affiliated with IS and entered Turkey as a Syrian refugee. At press time, EU government ministers had not yet agreed to any new Europe-wide security measures, but political pressure was mounting. Hungary, which has taken a tough anti-refugee stance, has filed a court case against the EU, challenging a proposed new quota system that would oblige it to accept more migrants. In France, the far-right Front National party, which opposes all immigration, made historic gains in regional elections in early December.

Soufi and other activists fear rising anti-refugee sentiment and a crackdown on borders would target genuine refugees fleeing war in Syria and other conflicts. Many people, such as Afghan refugee Maline, 42, a former hairdresser from the city of Herat, risk everything to make the journey because they see Europe as their only hope. Maline was forced to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban shot and killer her father. She sailed to Sicily with her husband, Amir, 45, and their teenage daughter, Layah, in mid-2014. "We were at sea for five days," says Maline, who is now living in a refugee shelter outside Catania. "There was a storm, and the boat started taking on water. The traffickers told us to throw everything we owned overboard, except our cell phones. Then they told us we should use the phones to call our loved ones and say goodbye, because we were all going to die." Their boat was rescued, but not before 14 of the 180 passengers drowned. "Our daughter, Layah, didn't speak for one year when we arrived in Sicily," she says.

On a boat taking on water, the traffickers told us we should call our loved ones and say goodbye, because we were all going to die."—Maline, refugee

Soufi, who hears such stories every day, admits that sometimes it all becomes too much for her. "I have what I call a crying party by myself," she says. "I go back to my house, close the door, and cry nonstop until I feel better." She worries that with the flow of refugees set to swell, according to UN estimates, Europe needs to take much more effective action or risk more deaths. "In the end, people are coming to Europe to rebuild their lives and create a more hopeful future," she says. "Everyone, including me, has to remember that." She wants governments to clamp down on traffickers and to provide safe passage for refugees by both sea and land, as well as to prevent harsher security measures that would penalize legitimate asylum seekers. In the meantime, she will carry on in her role as Lady SOS. "As long as refugees are crossing the Mediterranean Sea, I have to be here to help and welcome them," she says. "I have to be there to say: 'See you on land.'"

This article appears in the March issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.