Father Mussie Zerai, 40, a Catholic priest of Eritrean descent, has been nominated for helping to save the lives of thousands of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean by simply answering his cellphone. Zerai is often woken up at night by calls from migrants crying for help from flimsy boats taking in water and from those inside stifling cargo compartments of lorries in the Sahara.
He then communicates the GPS coordinates of the migrants to Italy’s coast guard and EU naval authorities so that rescue crews could be launched.
The winner will be announced tomorrow.
Zerai said he met Pope Francis earlier this year at a conference on human trafficking and shared harrowing survivor stories they had heard on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
“He told me: ‘Have courage, Father, keep going’,” Zera said.
The phone calls started in 2003 after he gave his number to a journalist who needed help translating the accounts of Eritreans stuck in Libyan detention camps. The number was then passed along by word of mouth. Someone also scrawled it on the wall of a Libyan prison.
Zera now fields calls from as far afield as Yemen and Indonesia. Overwhelmed, he founded the “Watch the Med” call centre, manned mostly by volunteers.