Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters/File
Eritrean-born priest Mussie Zerai smiles during an interview in front of Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican in September 2015.

A one-man 911 for immigrants crossing the Mediterranean

Countless times, the Rev. Mussie Zerai has relayed calls from refugees in distress to the Italian Coast Guard. But as the public mood in Italy turns against migrants from Africa and the Mideast, he finds himself under investigation for people trafficking.

For tens of thousands of desperate migrants, their fragile boats in peril of sinking beneath the Mediterranean waves, his cellphone number has meant the difference between life and death.

Countless times over the past 14 years, refugees seeking a new life in Europe have placed their faith in the Rev. Mussie Zerai, calling him in distress. He, in turn, has informed the Italian Coast Guard of the emergencies, and they have arranged a rescue.

Father Zerai, an Eritrean Roman Catholic priest, has earned the nickname “guardian angel of the refugees.” He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. But now, as the public mood in Italy turns against migrants from Africa and the Middle East, he finds himself under investigation by a public prosecutor looking into illegal people trafficking. In some people's eyes he is a devil.

Zerai, a heavyset man in a white soutane, a crucifix hanging from his neck, laughs at this new twist of fate. “I didn’t identify myself before as an angel and now I don’t accept that I’m a devil,” he chuckles. “I am just a normal person. When I know that a person’s life is in danger, my duty is to help save it.”

A number on a prison wall

Zerai, also known as “Father Moses,” was thrown headfirst and unwarned into the drama of Europe’s migrant crisis when his phone rang at 3 one morning 14 years ago. “I was sleeping,” he recalls, “and at first I didn’t understand. I thought it was a joke. But when I heard many people shouting ‘Help us, we’re in danger’ I realized that something had happened.”

He was a seminarist at the time; he woke his rector and asked for advice. “If they are in danger at sea, ring the Coast Guard,” his mentor said. So that’s what he did.

How did someone with a satellite phone in a packed refugee boat off the coast of Libya have Zerai’s number? And how did it spread so far and wide among migrants? He figured that out only years later.

He had once helped translate for an Italian journalist writing about the fate of Eritrean refugees in Libyan detention centers. The journalist, it seemed, had given his phone number to the refugees.

Eight years later Zerai got a call from an American journalist reporting from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. “He asked me if I knew that my number was written on a prison wall.”

Zerai has lost count of the number of distress calls he has fielded. But since he began sending emails to the Italian Coast Guard in 2011, formally forwarding the SOS messages he had received instead of just phoning them in, he estimates that “I’ve cooperated with the Coast Guard and [nongovernmental organizations] in the rescue of around 150,000 people.”

He takes the calls wherever he is, he says, though that is normally in bed, since migrants tend to phone him in the middle of the night. “The traffickers give them a satellite phone,” Zerai explains. “It’s their only life jacket.” Sometimes he doesn’t get much sleep, “but in the face of somebody’s life at risk, I can sacrifice some of my sleeping time.”

Seeking the priesthood

Zerai calls Rome his home, but for the past six years he has spent most of his time in Switzerland, where he is chaplain to the Eritrean Catholic community. “I would prefer to have stayed in Rome, but it was the decision of my bishop” in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, he says.

Zerai remembers wanting to become a priest when he was just 14; he was raised in Asmara by his Catholic grandmother, who he says “meant everything to me” after his mother died when he was five and his father fled Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia, for political exile in Italy. But the bishop said he needed parental permission to study for the priesthood, and his father told him he was too young.

When he was 16, Zerai flew to Rome to join his dad, but it had taken him five months to get an Italian visa; by the time the boy arrived, his father had moved to a new job in Nigeria.

“I was alone in Italy,” he recalls, an experience he says gives him particular sympathy for the migrant exiles now arriving by the tens of thousands on Italy’s southern shores. A British priest helped him get residence papers, and for nine years Zerai survived by doing odd jobs – selling fruit, hawking newspapers, and cleaning offices.

In 2000 he fulfilled his boyhood dream and began theological studies with the Scalabrinian congregation, a religious community dedicated to helping migrant and refugees. Ten years later he was ordained a priest.

'I do my duty'

Normally the summer months are Zerai’s busiest; good weather encourages Libyan smugglers to send more boats full of migrants to sea, and those boats often run into trouble even before they are out of Libyan territorial waters.

Strangely, he says, he has had only one distress call this month. The Libyan Coast Guard, he believes, is stepping up its activities to intercept boats while they are still close to shore, and local militias appear to have joined the effort to stop migrants leaving.

That is part of the Italian government’s new policy to work closely with the authorities in Libya to contain the migrant flood. The policy includes cracking down on NGOs that run search and rescue vessels off the Libyan coast and that sometimes act on Zerai’s information.

It is this link between Zerai and nongovernmental search-and-rescue ships that seems to be behind the decision by the public prosecutor in the Sicilian town of Trapani to include the priest in his investigation of international NGOs on suspicion that they are colluding with Libyan people smugglers in the transport of migrants.

Zerai denies the allegations vigorously. “I don’t have any contact with the smugglers so how can I collude with them?” he asks. “All I do, when I get a contact with people in the boats – not with the smugglers – is I tell the Coast Guard,” copying his emails to them to the UN refugee agency and to NGOs running rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

“What I do, I do only to save lives,” he insists. “I do my duty, that is all.”

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