Mi­grant shipwreck sur­vivors grieve for chil­dren swept from their arms


Their chil­dren slipped out of their grasp as the boat over­turned and were lost to the waves. Now, trau­ma­tized par­ents brought to safety af­ter a deadly Mediter­ranean shipwreck are be­ing given psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port in Si­cily.

The cross­ing was sup­posed to be the start of a new life in Europe, but at the Car­i­tas-run “Saint Ros­alia” cen­ter in Palermo, griev­ing par­ents plucked from the sea off Libya sit numbly, watch­ing those chil­dren that did sur­vive and ask­ing what the fu­ture now holds.

Psy­chol­o­gists, cul­tural me­di­a­tors, vol­un­teers and mem­bers of Doc­tors With­out Borders (MSF) do what they can to com­fort the 367 sur­vivors brought to Si­cily by the Ir­ish pa­trol boat which res­cued them af­ter Wed­nes­day’s dis­as­ter.

On the pa­tio, two veiled women are hugged in turn by psy­chol­o­gist Anna Cul­lotta, who has ex­pe­ri­ence in help­ing mi­grant sur­vivors. Nearby, three chil­dren, still wear­ing the plas­tic shoes handed out as they got off the boat on Thurs­day, play a game of ta­ble football with a vol­un­teer.

“Wed­nes­day’s shipwreck was the most tragic and poignant of all, be­cause among the re­cov­ered bod­ies and miss­ing peo­ple there were nu­mer­ous chil­dren,” Cul­lotta told AFP.

A young Syr­ian mother, who had hoped to join her hus­band in Swe­den with their son, in­stead saw him drown as the fish­ing boat went down.

“She set off with the idea of a fu- ture, full of hope, then the tragedy. She called her hus­band to tell him the news, and she hasn’t spo­ken since,” Cul­lotta said.

Scenes of vi­o­lence and fear in the mo­ments lead­ing up to the tragedy were re­counted by po­lice Fri­day, who said sur­vivors had de­scribed how the traf­fick­ers slashed mi­grants with knives and thrashed them with belts.

Five sus­pects from Libya, Al­ge­ria and Tu­nisia were ar­rested af­ter wit­ness said they sealed some 250 des­per­ate pas­sen­gers in the boat’s hull shortly be­fore the ac­ci­dent, giv­ing them no chance of es­cap­ing with their lives when the ves­sel sank.

Pre­tend­ing Mommy Is Still Alive

The sur­vivors need help to “carry their psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional bur­den,” Cul­lotta added.

Chiara Mon­taldo, an MSF co­or­di­na­tor for Si­cily, said “they need to speak, to vent,” ex­plain­ing how the aid or­ga­ni­za­tion brought a team of cul­tural me­di­a­tors to the cen­ter “who speak the same lan­guage as them, who share the same cul­ture.”

“The most im­por­tant thing is that peo­ple feel lis­tened to be­cause they are com­pletely dis­ori­en­tated, they have lost their bear­ings in a coun­try they do not know, so hav­ing some­thing which re­minds them of their cul­ture, some­thing fa­mil­iar, is fun­da­men­tal.”

Cul­lotta said they were suf­fer­ing a dou­ble blow. “Added to the shipwreck is the loss of their chil­dren “— and all af­ter the stress and trauma of long, dif­fi­cult and of­ten dan­ger­ous jour­neys from their homes to de­par­ture points in Libya.

“We need to be present, close to them, to help them to share their suf­fer­ing,” she said.

With chil­dren who have lost their broth­ers, sis­ters or par­ents, the ap­proach is dif­fer­ent: “With them, it’s about games, we need to dis­tract them. They play, and in do­ing so pro­tect them­selves from some­thing that’s big­ger than them.”

If it is pos­si­ble, they try to get rel­a­tives to speak to the chil­dren on the tele­phone. For the small chil­dren, a woman may pre­tend to be their mother, a fe­male voice on the other end of the line of­ten re­as­sur­ing them.

The very youngest are not told their par­ent has died: “We tell them mummy has gone to work, that she is abroad.”

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