To the Rescue: Behind a Privately Funded Bid to Save Migrants at Sea

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes a picture is worth a lot more than that, pivoting events in a whole new direction. That's been the case with the horrific image of a lifeless three-year-old boy named Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean with his five-year-old brother and their mother after fleeing war-ravaged Syria.

First, though, some backstory. At Inside Philanthropy, we’ve bemoaned the disgraceful lack of attention to the Syrian refugee crisis from U.S. philanthropy. Sure, there have been a few one-off relief efforts here and there, including some we reported on earlier this summer from Western Union and UPS, but those initiatives have paled in light of the immensity of this prolonged humanitarian crisis. 

Related: With "Help Dwindling" for Syrian Refugees, Western Union and UPS Step Up

Enter Christopher Catrambone.

During the summer of 2013, the Louisiana native turned Malta resident and CEO of the Tangiers Group—a multi-million dollar organization that provides medical case management and insurance in conflict zones to NGO workers, journalists and military subcontractors—was three weeks into an annual family cruise across the Mediterranean when his wife Regina noticed a winter coat floating in the water.  They suspected the coat may have belonged to one of the many refugees who brave the Mediterranean each year seeking asylum in Europe—often in makeshift rafts and rickety vessels—and soon began lamenting the fact that more wasn’t being done to help those risking their lives in search of peace.

Just months later, in early October, 380 refugees—many from Syria and Eritrea—drowned when their vessels capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 100 miles West of the Catrambones’ island home of Malta. Determined not to sit idly by, Christopher and Regina decided to set up their own search and rescue operation—and by August 2014, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) was up and running.

The need is astonishingly high. According the UNHCR, the Mediterranean sea is one of the busiest seaways in the world, with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing the conflict and instability in Africa and the Middle East every year, desperate to reach Europe. It is also the deadliest, and thousands of people have drowned at sea.

Equipped with a 40-meter (that's 132 feet to you and me) expedition boat, two search drones and two inflatable boats, as well as a team of rescuers and paramedics, MOAS has saved over 11,000 lives since its first operation one year ago. And as you can imagine, an operation of this magnitude and complexity comes with a hefty price tag—upwards of €500,000 each month.

While the initial capital and first season’s operating costs were made by Christopher and Regina—making MOAS the first-ever privately funded initiative of this type—it's hard to imagine how MOAS could sustain itself without significant external support. And if the West’s inexplicable apathy to the plight of refugees clamoring to enter European countries was to be any indication of the future, MOAS long-term impact would have likely remained limited.

And then, with one devastating photograph, everything changed.

Since the heartbreaking image of Aylan Kurdi appeared on newspaper front pages across the world, MOAS has seen a 15-fold increase in donations—raising over €1 million in just two days. Moreover, it seems to have sparked a sudden wave of empathy for refugees not seen since civil war began tearing the country apart four years ago.

From MOAS Director and Malta’s former Chief of Defense, Martin Xuereb:

We are experiencing a tidal wave of humanity after years of global indifference. One photo has changed people’s hearts and minds the world over. We are all now realising this is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions and we need all hands on deck.

And as one of the only nonprofits of its kind providing real and discernable help to refugees, MOAS has quickly become the organization to rally around with some of Europe’s biggest celebrities coming together to raise awareness and money for the foundation under the banner Artists for MOAS, including Colin Firth, Michael Fassbender and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. As Malta Today reported, 

Using the hashtag #savelivesnow celebrities are reaching out to their fans and followers on social media urging them to donate to MOAS. Many of them are even challenging their fans to raise enough funds to keep MOAS at sea for a day: £5,300. Those artists have then pledged to match that donation. More celebrities will be launching campaigns of their own over the coming days and weeks.

All this is good news. What we need now is for some major U.S. foundations to also take note of the extraordinary work that MOAS is doing.