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Stefanie Pender: not a hero, not at all

Yonas is a 30-year-old Eritrean. He is one of the lucky ones. He made it to Italy from Libya a year ago. When he finally arrived, he was unable to walk. He had been held by people smugglers in Libyan and forced into slavery. He is able to tell his story: “to go to the toilet, you start waiting in line one day and you’d finally get to go the next day. So sometimes you do it on yourself, and then you can’t wash.” Since 2000, more than 23,000 people have died trying to reach Europe from North Africa. The number of deaths is based on the number of bodies found; it is almost certainly an underestimate. Over 2,000 of these deaths (or bodies) have been this year out of the 120,000 that have attempted the journey. It is the scale of these numbers that beggars belief; that’s three times the population of Eurobodalla.

Stefanie Pender is a young doctor who’s currently working at Moruya Hospital. If you were lucky enough be the beneficiary of her ministrations then you would probably think that she was like any other young doctor. In fact, you would be benefitting from the experience of one who has had to make rapid fire decisions that you don’t even want to think about.

Above: Stefanie looking relaxed … but probably not

Earlier this year, Stefanie went to work for Sea Watch to help refugees crossing – or attempting to cross – the short stretch of the Mediterranean between North Africa and Italy. This short stretch of water represents the difference between a life of abuse, slavery and starvation in Libya and the opportunity for salvation, freedom and the chance to make a contribution in Europe and elsewhere. These people, these refugees, are driven by the same challenges and atrocities that drive the people who are on the boats that the Australian government wants to stop. This is the cry of Tony Abbott and his ilk which has been taken up, shamefully, by the Australian Labor Party. It is this policy that the UN Commission High Commissioner for Refugees has said breaches "common decency”.

We have all seen, in our domestic media, the pictures of desperate people caged like animals. We then remove any remaining dignity from a few by entering into agreements with the US to “swap” refugees, as if these people were cattle or simply objects of exchange. We continue to sit in our armchairs, reading the newspapers and watching the television. We see reports from journalists that have been prevented from publishing what they know by arbitrary restrictions on what the public needs to know. Because the government probably knows that if the public knew what it was doing, with the support of a craven Labor party that professes egalitarian values, then they would have none of it.

Above:As the crow flies Libya and Italy are separated by about 750km of open water. As the refugee boat travels that might as well be infinite

A few months ago, Stefanie was doing a diploma in in International Health in Berlin, with a view to working in refugee camps in Greece once she finished it. A friend of hers suggested that she might want to volunteer as a doctor on a Sea Watch ship in the Mediterranean. She thought that might be interesting but was surprised when she almost immediately received a phone call that they needed an emergency replacement for a Doctor the next week. Her friend said that the job would not be hard and reassured Stefanie that her capabilities were more than adequate. “She said that I would just have to make baby milk and feed babies, essentially caring for the vulnerable until help from bigger ships arrived … but it was very different than that” Stefanie told me.

She had had experience of working in the Northern Territory and had developed an interest in managing and delivering healthcare in places where there are big demands but few resources. This is not like trotting into Accident and Emergency and being seen by a doctor or nurse. Delivering healthcare under pressure requires an approach to triage that has no room for emotion and a great demand for quick decision making. “When you find a boat full of refugees you cannot see the people in the middle. You do not know what attention they need. But you know that you are probably not going to stop and look at the person with a toothache,” says Stefanie. Her approach to triage was to “ask the people in the boat to tell me if the sick people looked alive or nearly dead … to tell me if they were breathing or could open their eyes.” Harsh, hard stuff.

She joined the MS Sea Watch after a few days training in Malta. Once on board she was pitched into a series of experiences that will never leave her but, for all their brutality, have probably left her a better human; perhaps one better human we should all strive to emulate. She ended up doing three missions of three weeks each in May, June and July. The operations of the volunteer organisations are guided by a Maritime Rescue Centre in Rome (MRCC). On the first day, they found six barely seaworthy craft packed with frightened people. In sight of the Libyan beach is an oil rig. The refugees are told that its lights are the lights of Italy. People smugglers are liars, cheats, extortionists and torturers. On the second day, the rescue centre located 23 boats; eight of these were never found. Each of these eight may have had 200 people on board. You do the maths.

But the motivations of the MRCC may be political; like the Australians, the Italians may make capital from human suffering. Stefanie did her third mission with another organisation, Jugend Rettet. One of their boats, the Iuventa, was probably set up by the Europeans and then confiscated by the Italians. Stefanie was on board when it all happened. A European political narrative had been created that said that the volunteers themselves were people smugglers. As a way of dealing with the refugee crisis, that would make even the Australian approach pale by comparison.

When they sight a boat, the ship launches an RHIB (a rigid hulled inflatable boat); basically a fancy rubber dinghy. Now, sitting there in your armchair, you may have a view of the Mediterranean as that stretch of calm blue water off Cannes. But to the north of the Libyan coast the sea is choppy and the air is cold. Sailing there is not a great way to spend a day. The RHIB has a three-person crew: Stef, a paramedic and a driver. The mothership is soon out of sight and all Stefanie can see is a dot on the horizon which is a boat.

When the RHIB reaches the boat, the action begins. In her first venture Stefanie is confronted by 250 terrified people; two are not breathing and have no pulse. Doing CPR while you are travelling across a rough sea is a non-trivial exercise. But Stef’s a doctor, we expect her to save people and that’s what she does. On one mission, she was handed a new born baby wrapped in a bundle. Her mother had died on childbirth on a Libyan beach. The baby was thrust into Stef’s arms; she had to deal with it.

I wonder what motivates her. She finds it hard to articulate her reasons. In spite of the fear and uncertainty and the pressure, she says “it was an incredibly enriching experience, soaked in very raw humanity.” She concedes that there was grief but “there was also jubilation, a powerful sense of community, purposefulness and hope.” She adds: “I think those values will stick with me”. I am sure they will.

Above: Would you cross 1,000 km of open sea like this? (Photo: Sea Watch)

She says that it’s easy to describe her as a white privileged hero. You need to unpick that phrase to understand what she’s saying. She is white, she may be privileged; whether she’s a hero I leave to you to decide. She’s been on a boat attacked by Libyan gunboat, she didn’t have to do what she did, she worked under immense pressure … maybe these things make one a hero. She was in a particular place at a particular time and did what she thought was right. She says her mother worries about her but that’s about being a parent rather than the child’s heroism. Kids break free and do their own thing. We may think she’s a hero but she backs away from any sense that she is remarkable. The “white privileged hero” description provides a narrative for the media but, she says “it fails to represent the people actually affected by the crisis.”

Warren Zevon is my all-time rock ’n’ roll hero. He sang “from the President of the United States to the lowliest rock ’n’ roll star, the doctor will see you; she don’t care who you are.” It’s that interpretation of the Hippocratic oath that we all depend upon. It’s not just the privileged who have a right to health care, it’s everyone.

Talking to Stefanie left me with a different sense of perspective. I think worrying about a world that fails to ensure basic human rights and living in a country that connives in that failure kind of puts arguments about a 50 metre pool in Batemans Bay into the “who really gives a shit?” basket. It’s just really hard to know what we can do about it … unless, of course, you’re a young doctor called Stefanie Pender.

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