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Israel sends first paramedic to help rescue refugees off Libya

Israel Papa, 23, spends five weeks as part of a Red Cross team providing medical care to those fleeing in flimsy boats

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Ilan Pappa, a paramedic with the Israeli emergency service, Magen David Adom, spent five weeks working with a Red Cross medical team aboard a ship that rescues migrant refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, November, 2016. (Screenshot, Channel 2 News)
Ilan Pappa, a paramedic with the Israeli emergency service, Magen David Adom, spent five weeks working with a Red Cross medical team aboard a ship that rescues migrant refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, November, 2016. (Screenshot, Channel 2 News)

Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency service sent its first paramedic to help the Red Cross to rescue refugees off the Libyan coast.

Israel Papa, 23, spent five weeks with the international aid service’s medical personnel aboard the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. MOAS delegations usually include a doctor and a nurse, but on this occasion, the Red Cross turned to MDA, which has its own paramedics school.

Papa helped to save and treat thousands of people fleeing from war and poverty from as far afield as Nigeria and Pakistan, via Libya.

“This experience has definitely changed me,” said Papa, who usually works at an MDA station in the central town of Ramat Gan.

Migrants who cannot swim fall into the water during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, November 2016. (Screenshot Channel 2 News)
Migrants who cannot swim fall into the water during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, November 2016. (Screenshot Channel 2 News)

“When I was a kid, all I wanted was to skip school and get out of class, but there was a kid on the vessel who wrote a letter that completely changed my perspective on life. He wrote about how his biggest wish was to have a home again and go to school every day, just like other kids do.”

“All I could think about at that moment was how unfortunate and incredibly unfair it is that some people are born into a tougher life than others.”

Channel 2 News accompanied Papa as the MOAS ship sailed 700 km out of Italy southwards towards Libya‘s maritime boundary.

At this point, many of the refugees are rescued from their rickety boats — if they haven’t already capsized.

Earlier this month, 240 people drowned, including six children, when two flimsy rubber dinghies collapsed.

240 migrants, including six children, drowned after this and another rubber dinghy capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in November, 2016. (Screenshot Channel 2 News)
240 migrants, including six children, drowned after this and another rubber dinghy capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in November, 2016. (Screenshot Channel 2 News)

They were among some 3,300 people who have died at sea in the past year and 10,000 who have lost their lives over the past three years.

The refugees pay smugglers anything between 500 to 1,000 Euros ($530-$1,062) for a place on a boat.

“There‘s a black market of people who only care about money,” Papa told Channel 2. “They‘ll sell as many tickets as possible, and when it‘s time for people to go on board, they‘ll use one boat and squeeze in as many people as they can.

“It’s inconceivable — 150 [people] on a small rubber dingy. They come aboard soaked, some of them still with fresh wounds from being shot at in Libya, some with broken bones from being beaten, some with gasoline burns from the only engine they have on the rubber boat. It’s a life that I wouldn’t have imagined could exist in the world until I got here.”

MOAS is a charity dedicated to saving lives at sea by providing professional search and rescue to people in distress. The busiest crossings in the Mediterranean are the western, central and eastern routes used by people fleeing from places such as Eritrea, Somalia and Syria.

A rubber dinghy transporting 150 migrants rescued by Israel Papa and staff on the MOAS migrant rescue ship, November 2016. (ScreenShot Channel 2 News)
A rubber dinghy transporting 150 migrants rescued by Israel Papa and staff on the MOAS migrant rescue ship, November 2016. (ScreenShot Channel 2 News)

The team includes security professionals, medical staff, experienced maritime officers and members of humanitarian organizations.

Staff look out for refugee boats on the horizon and then sail towards them. They rescue the refugees, sometime in harsh weather and water conditions, and get them safely onto the ship.

Some need immediate medical care, even helicopter evacuation to hospital in Europe. The rest stay on the vessel where they eat, drink, and undergo medical checks, before they board other boats bound for Italy.

“We had to speak to the refugees…they have been through so much and had a lot of questions about who we were and where we were taking them,” Papa said. “I spent a lot of time on the vessel playing with the children using games and crayons.”

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