‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe
CATANIA, ITALY— Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Among the crowd of Syrian refugees in Catania station, it is the number of children that is striking. There are babies just a few weeks old. These Syrians have fled civil war - and they’ve just spent up to 20 days at sea in an old fishing boat.
Exhausted, with little money and few belongings, they’re about to start the next leg of their journey north - on the night train to Milan.
They bring with them tales of horror from Syria. Ahmad Anwar Fares describes what forced him to flee his home in Rif Al Sham near Damascus.
He said they bombed his house, killing his 4-month-old daughter when a block of ceiling fell on her. Fares said he has two sons whom he immediately picked up and fled.
There is at least a friendly face waiting in Catania. Nawal Soufi is a Moroccan-Italian woman known as the "Angel of the Migrants." She and her friends distribute baby food and clothes, along with words of advice and encouragement.
"I love you all. You are my family," she says. "God bless you and may you achieve your dreams."
Soufi is part of a group of activists working along the migrant trail through Italy - known as "la rete," or the network. Part of their work is helping migrants avoid being exploited by con men, as Soufi explained.
On this particular day, she said, a group of con men offered to drive them to the north for 500 euros each. She explained to the migrants that they have the right to take a train and that the police cannot stop them.
Soufi explained why she is dedicated to helping the migrants.
So she can "feel like a human being" when she gets back home at night, she says. So she does not feel she is a part of the tragedy. So she does not feel she has the blood of these people on her hands.
After setting off from North Africa, migrants often call Soufi from a satellite phone so she can alert the coast guard. It’s earned her the nickname "Lady SOS."
Earlier this month, up to 900 migrants died when their boat sank off Libya. Soufi said Europe’s inaction is an outrage. "Is it impossible that Europe cannot guarantee a humanitarian corridor from Syria, with each country taking a share of these migrants?" Soufi asked. "Europe is considered a group of democratic countries where everyone knows about human rights - although perhaps now that is only known on paper, because 900 people is more than just a number."
The migrants at Catania have survived that deadly journey. Now they face new fears and challenges.
Nawal Soufi is on the platform to wave them off with the Syrian flag, urging them to be strong. She will return the next day, ready to help another wave of desperate migrants arriving on this corner of Europe’s southern shores.