Between Worlds

How cultural mediation is vital to our search and rescue efforts.

2016 © Yann Merlin/SOS MEDITERRANEE

Alert is a quarterly magazine published by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF-USA) that features stories and photography from our medical projects around the world. Below is an excerpt from MSF-USA Board President Africa Stewart's introduction to the Spring 2022 issue (Vol 23. No. 1), How MSF works: Responding to emergencies. If you would like to download a print version of this publication, click here.

MSF SAR Team - R4

Portrait of MSF staff, Nejma Banks, Cultural mediator

Nejma Banks was born in Algeria but forced to flee persecution. She spent her early life in Italy, Saudi Arabia, Guinea, France, and Cyprus, picking up new languages along the way. Here, she discusses her work as a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) cultural mediator aboard the search and rescue ship Geo Barents on the Mediterranean Sea. Since launching our search and rescue operations in 2015, MSF teams have assisted more than 84,000 people making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean in search of safety in Europe.

What does cultural mediation mean to you? What skills does a good cultural mediator need to have?

Cultural mediation is the ability to transcend self imposed limitations in communication. Language efficiency and the understanding of and respect for cultural norms and nuances are necessary tools to be a cultural mediator. What is one thing you would like people reading this to understand about migration and people seeking refuge? No one, absolutely nobody, wants to leave their home country, family, friends, and community to put their lives in danger crossing seas and lands in search of a better, safer life. I met families like yours and mine. My last assignment was particularly harrowing, as we rescued an overcrowded wooden boat with 99 survivors and 10 deceased.

The international community has decided to punish people seeking refuge with its deterrent policies and bigotry, leading to gross violations of fundamental human rights. The life path of the migrants we rescued on the Geo Barents seems extraordinary to many, but it can happen to the most ordinary of us at any given moment.

Rescue 4 - Rotation 4
2021 © Filippo Taddei/MSF

What were your main activities on the Geo Barents?

As one of two cultural mediators onboard the Geo Barents, I assisted people rescued from the Mediterranean, the MSF health team, and others with translations, interpretations, and cultural do’s and don’ts. The migrants need physical and mental assistance as soon as they arrive on the ship. Our dedicated team works tirelessly with every individual to alleviate the pain they are in as best as we can. As a cultural mediator, I cherish the privilege of hearing the migrants’ stories and witnessing their relief and gratitude as they share them. Their stories matter.

Story of a Syrian family on board
Italy © Virginie Nguyen Hoang/HUMA

How would you describe your time doing search and rescue?

This is a difficult question, as I have no accurate words to describe my time on the Geo Barents. It is a feeling. I tried to make sense of a reality that is hard to describe: distressed men, women, and children floating in the middle of the sea, enduring indescribable hell in search of a peaceful place to land.

We are frontline workers of MSF’s search and rescue mission on the Geo Barents. I really liked working with the team. It is a very raw, intense, demanding, and profoundly human role that leads us from first contact rescue, to care, testimony, advocacy, and, ultimately, to disembarkation at a port of safety.

Alert Spring 2022: How MSF works

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