Madeleine Habib ran away to sea in her early twenties and found a perfect blend of physical work and mental challenges. She worked from boat to boat, following her love of the sea and passion for environmental and social activism. Her journey eventually brought her to Médecins Sans Frontières where she has worked on both land- and sea-based operations. Madeleine returned to Australia in November where she spoke about her most recent project in Djibouti and her role in the current Mediterranean crisis as captain of Médecins Sans Frontières’ rescue boat Dignity 1.
Your humanitarian work has taken you around the world. Earlier this year you went to Djibouti which seems like a good example of how someone with your skills can be utilised by Médecins Sans Frontières. What was your role?
The project is actually in Yemen, but the difficulty with Yemen is access, so the supply base is set up in Djibouti and the medical supplies and medical teams were assembled in Djibouti. We then had to get them to Aden. By distance it’s not very far but we did have to cross the mouth of the Red Sea. We used a local boat and a local crew and transferred the teams to Aden. It’s quite a challenging trip – 14 hours in good conditions, in an open boat. My position was to make sure that it was a safe passage and that we could get the teams and medical supplies safely across.
You went almost immediately to the Mediterranean as captain of Dignity 1. How did that mission compare to your other work?
I felt very strongly about that project and I really wanted to be part of it. For me it was a really great fusion of my skills and my passion. Médecins Sans Frontières is involved with three ships in the Mediterranean but Dignity is the only one that is actually owned and completely crewed by Médecins Sans Frontières and that’s where I wanted to be. It was a wonderful feeling to arrive there and be the captain of the vessel and give myself fully to the project.
“We will always be moving to seek a better life, a safer life.”
Why did the project mean so much to you?
The thought that people are drowning trying to cross the Mediterranean in this day and age just seems ridiculous. It’s such a small body of water – it should never be such a huge obstacle. There are so many people moving north, so many people leaving Africa, facing persecution, struggling in their own countries – there are so many reasons why these people need to leave their home environment and make their way to better places, to safer places. The fact that the most dangerous part of their journey should be crossing the Mediterranean is just absurd. There’s a definite need for safe and legal passage for these people, and that is what Médecins Sans Frontières is promoting. But in the interim, there needs to be some kind of humanitarian-led rescue system there for those people who are taking unbelievable risks.
How do you respond to such negative sentiment towards refugees and those seeking asylum?
We all need to recognise the fact that humans migrate – that’s what we do. We will always be moving to seek a better life, a safer life – when our families are threatened, when there isn’t enough food, we’ll look somewhere else. We need to keep it in perspective – to see how much we have, see how little other people have – and have a bit of generosity of spirit.
Why are you personally so involved in humanitarian aid?
I do feel very strongly about having a sense of social responsibility. I feel like if your eyes have been opened and you’ve seen the suffering or the horrors that people face, it’s very difficult to close your eyes again. So once you’re aware of the suffering that’s going on in the world, it just brings out something in you that makes you want to address the situation and do what you can to improve it.
What next for you?
It’s very much my hope that I will be going back to Dignity. Ideally there will be no need for Dignity to be in the Mediterranean next year but the fact is Médecins Sans Frontières now has a ship and a ship is a very useful tool, and as long as you have a ship, you need a captain, so I’m hoping I will be part of the team again next year.
Any anecdote that you would like to share?
People are so genuinely grateful because, it’s true, we’ve saved their lives. If we weren’t there, many of those people would drown. More than 3,000 people were lost, drowned, in that crossing from Libya – this year. Seven hundred thousand people have tried to make that crossing of the Mediterranean this year. So it’s very important to keep the faces real and not just have people as numbers. To go down there [to the deck] and hold somebody’s hand and you hear their story for five minutes and you share a laugh with them, hearing the stories of what they faced in Nigeria, or the horrors they faced on the journey to get as far as they have and just know that for the time that they’re on board they do get some respect, and some dignity, and some compassion, and some clean clothes, and some genuine human attention – for me it really felt like I was doing a humanitarian act and I’m very proud to be part of that.