Nawal Soufi, the refugee helper

Month after month, innumerable refugees find themselves in life-threatening situations at sea. Nawal Soufi is there for them. She takes emergency calls around the clock, sounds the alarm and informs the coastguard. Soufi is already well known among refugees. They call her "Lady SOS".

The refugees are jammed together in the most cramped of spaces, hundreds of them on small, barely seaworthy boats, at the mercy of waves, wind and weather. Every month, thousands of people attempt to flee to Europe across the Mediterranean from Syria and other conflict-ridden regions in the Middle East and northern Africa. Many of them have only one option if their vessel gets into a maritime emergency: a call to Lady SOS.

In her daily life, Lady SOS is called Nawal Soufi. She has her mobile phone on 24/7. She is always on call to initiate a rescue. Soufi is 27 years old and was born in Morocco. She now lives in Catania, a town on the island of Sicily. Refugee boats arrive here almost every day: some of them have survived the crossing in good shape, some are rescued by the coastguard, for some the assistance comes too late.

Soufi tries to help the refugees where she can. Her Facebook page today serves as a central point of contact for refugees and migrants, which also explains how her phone number comes to be saved in thousands of people’s mobile phones: it has been spread around the Internet. Many refugees have passed it on to their relatives and friends, in Syria, Libya and all the way to the borders of Egypt and Turkey. They call Soufi if they find themselves in a maritime emergency. The call generally sounds something like this:

“Hello?” — “Assalamu alaikum.” — “How many of you are there out there?” — “300.” — “How many women and children? Is your ship made of wood or metal?” — There is silence, except for the sound of the sea. — “What is your position?” — “I don’t know.”

Sofi needs strong nerves when speaking with the flustered and frightened refugees. “You need strength to control their panic and stop them shouting,” she says. “They want to tell me the waves are enormous, the children on board are crying and they have no water, and I have to teach them how to use their satellite phone to figure out their coordinates.” Once they have together ascertained the position of the castaway boat, Soufi alarms the coastguard immediately. She often knows of the emergencies before the authorities. She speaks Arabian because of her Moroccan background, unlike the Catanian coastguard, which doesn’t even have an interpreter.

It is a moment of great happiness for Soufi when the refugees reach the Italian coast safely, but that is not the end of her work. She helps the migrants in whatever way she can, for instance in finding a place to stay, posting “Who can put up two Syrian boys for one night in Ventimiglia?” on her Facebook page. She has also often helped migrants take a train to Milan. Many of them hope to obtain asylum in northern Europe. Soufi wants to prevent them from falling into the hands of illegal traffickers. She explains: “They need to avoid the traffickers in Sicily who try to charge them 500 Euros for a train ticket.”

From a legal standpoint, this kind of action is problematic. Nonetheless, Soufi has only ever been reported to the authorities once for aiding illegal entry to the EU. She trusts in the fact that the messages she publishes on her Facebook page are in Arabian and will therefore be ignored by the authorities. In one of her comments she jokes: “I’ll kill anyone who translates these comments.”

Soufi spends a lot of time in the port of Catania together with her friends, on the lookout for refugee boats. But even when she is not there, Soufi’s thoughts are always with the refugees. Her phone rings up to ten times a day because of an emergency – at night as well. Soufi does not take any breaks from her job as Lady SOS. She is always ready to react to any call or text message. “They know I will respond 24 hours a day,” she explains, and adds: “The lives of 500 people are worth more than a night’s sleep.”

Photo: Photo Unit, CC BY-NC 2.0

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3 comments

  1. nawal

    tanx a lot.

    this is my facebook: nawal sos.

  2. RBS-Administrator, Roland Berger Stiftung

    Hey Gina,
    thank you very much. The link to her Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Nawal-Syriahorra-Sos/516382825161306
    Best,
    Julia

  3. Gina

    Hey !
    Great article!

    Could you plese link to her facebook page?

    That would be in great help, thank you!

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