Logbook #71: “My ladies also take care of me” – interview with Alice, midwife on board
One of the most impressive persons I met on board was 29-year-old Alice, our midwife aboard the Aquarius. It is her second time here with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and “certainly not her last”, as she says. “I sometimes feel like a fitness coach. You say ‘breathe, breathe’ through this so much: ‘just breathe, just breathe.’ This is what you say most as a midwife.”
In 2016 Alice was part of a MSF mission in Congo. During her studies, which she completed in London, she worked in Ethiopia. For five years now, Alice, who grew up in a small village in the south of France, has been working as a midwife. Her vast experience working in African countries where conditions were quite different to those in London’s hospitals, have helped her understand the women on board and to easily build relationships with her protégés during the short time that she accompanies them.
I have spent many hours talking to Alice and helped her, as she was responsible for all rescued females in the shelter. Alice told me about her experience during her first three weeks as a midwife aboard the Aquarius.
Verena: “Of course, I am interested to learn what a midwife’s work looks like on board. It must be quite different, from the work in a hospital, isn’t it?”
Alice: “When you train to be a midwife in the UK, which is where I trained, the vast majority of your training has to do with pregnancy. But when you start working with MSF, nothing really prepares you for that. MSF has broadened the range of tasks of the midwife, to women’s health more generally. Itis more than just about the birth. Some of the women have not seen a doctor or a midwife for the entirety of their pregnancy. They come on board with this huge belly and they have never seen a professional. So you know, you can make a big fuzz of it. It is really important and I want to make them feel really special, that their baby is really special.”
Alice explains that the women often tell her during the first registration that they are pregnant. And if there is uncertainty, Alice administers a pregnancy test to make sure that mother and child are in relatively good health after all that they have been through. During the most recent rescue, 120 female refugees were sheltered on board. I have not seen Alice much on deck in the last couple of days, she spends most of her time in the shelter with “her ladies” as she lovingly calls the rescued women. Consultations usually start at nine in the morning, on the days when there are rescued people on board and Alice often does not finish until after eight thirty in the evening. I am curious to know more about the daily work on board, especially in the days after the big rescues that we recently had.
Verena: “What did you expect from the work when you decided to join the mission of MSF?”
Alice: “Honestly, I did not know what to expect, pretty much until I started working on board. Once I had 37 consultations in one day and towards the end of the day, I was just totally out. One of my ladies noticed, that I had forgotten to write down her blood pressure and had to measure it again and the woman said: ‘Oh Alice, you are so tired.’ You know, my ladies also take care of me. Like Jamila* for example asked me, if I had food today, because she had not seen me outside of the clinic.”
Verena: “I wonder, how many of the pregnancy tests were positive?”
Alice: “Of the 120 women on board after the last rescue, 22 were tested and 20 women had pregnancy checks. I am sad, because once I also had two women that were pregnant because of rape. (…) Generally, I don’t ask, especially if they are far along in their pregnancy, because we know, that we cannot do anything about it. Also, I don’t have the psychological means to help them. 48 hours on board is too short to start therapy but I always ask them, if they have experienced violence. The problem is, that lots of them do not associate rape with violence. (…) Like Jamila, she just wanted a pregnancy test because she was worried that she was going to be pregnant and not married.”
Usually, Alice talks to her ladies during the consultations, sometimes they share with their story. Often it is the kidnapping, torturing or killing of their husbands that leaves them with nowhere to stay; sometimes the corpse is returned to the wife. Alice adds:
“And when they start telling stuff like this, I go a bit deeper and ask them whether they had actually been victim of violence, if they have been raped, or if anything else happened to them.”
Alice explains that, of course, it touches her, but crying in front of the patients would be very unsettling. It is the next morning, when writing the medical certificates that the stories she heard catch up with her and are sometimes hard to handle. It is during those morning hours that, she is by herself and can let go her emotions.
Verena: “Would you like to share one of your lady’s stories with me?”
Alice: “One of the encounters that really marked me was with sixteen-year old Jamila. Jamila had asked me, what my name meant. I had no idea, I am just Alice. And I asked her, what Jamila means. And she said: ‘Beautiful and beautiful things.’ So, Jamila, beautiful and beautiful things, was the sweetest little thing. She had been kidnapped from Nigeria. She doesn’t really know. According to her, a nice lady had taken her from the streets where Jamila was begging or selling water and had promised her food. She was very naïve. They drove for hours, and Jamila was getting worried, because her parents would be worried. Jamila had to swear to obey her new ‘aunty.’ At that point she was really scared. The lady took her across the desert together with a group of other people. But they had a car accident and eight people died – including the lady who had taken Jamila away from home. The young girl was then brought to a detention center in the Sebka desert, run by a violent Nigerian man. One day a man came and said he would help her. The man bought Jamila from the detention center and brought her to his house, where she had to clean and cook. After three days, the man started wanting to sleep with her. When she refused to sleep with him because she was not married to him, he threatened to bring her back to the center. ‘So I did’, she said. And I was trying to explain to her that this is not okay, that this was… rape. For her, the only problem about the involuntary sexual intercourse with the man who had raped her, was that she wasn’t married to him and that she hadn’t seen her period for more than a month. When Jamila told the man about her missing period, he sold her to an Arab man who put her back in a detention center. Jamila stayed in that detention center another two weeks, before she was taken to the beach one night and put on a boat. I asked her, if she knew where they were going and she said ‘no. ‘She did not know where they were going and everyone who asked was beaten up. During the registration Jamila wondered whether she might be pregnant, because she had not seen her period since the rape. So, I tested her for pregnancy and the result was positive. This was the only moment, when Jamila showed some sort of distress, but even then, it was like she was in a complete daze. She was worried because pregnant women in her village were married. I told her, maybe, when we get to Italy, she did not have to keep the baby, if she does not want to. And Jamila said: ‘Yes, I don’t want to keep him. Because, I would like to have a baby one day with my husband.’ I said to her, that people could not force her to have sex with them, that it was not okay. And she replied, that she just did not want to go back to the Sebka desert, to the center. She was probably being trafficked, and raped (again). It was completely surreal this thing for her. This was one of the really heavy stories that I have heard.”
Verena: “It is interesting how the women frame their stories, their perspective on the things that happened to them. Do you know what happens to those, who have been raped and involuntarily got pregnant? What happens to the women who have experienced violence?”
Alice: “I actually don’t know. Last time, in Salerno, they took them to a military tent where they had put up a special clinic for women.”
Our conversation then drifts to the everyday life in the shelter, as Alice explains: “You know, sometimes, it is complete mayhem here. When I get the kids toy out, when it is crowded in the shelter, I wonder, how to avoid the mayhem from starting.”
When she has a small break between consultations, Alice sits and chats with the mothers and plays with the children. “The other day, when I came out of the back clinic, the women asked me if they could have chicken and rice. And I told them: ‘Sure, you figure out, how I can cook for a thousand people and then we do it together’ and then they laughed with me. Another time, when the shelter was already full after a big rescue, some of the women asked me, if the ship was on its way to Italy. I told them that the boat was still at sea, on the way to more people in distress. The women looked at each other and remarked astonished that there was no more space in the shelter. I said, well, we will have to make space! And when they insisted that there was no space left, I replied: ‘Alright let’s leave them in the water, then.’ The women looked at me and said: ‘No, of course we do not want to do this, aunty.’ So then, let’s make space for them!”
What is often forgotten, is that the rescued women are strangers to one another, and I ask Alice, how they feel being together in the shelter. She believes the conditions on board are not ideal but already a lot better than in the detention centers. At least, each of the ladies has a blanket here and they will be fine.
Verena: “Where do you take your energy from?”
Alice: “I have the most wonderful team. They are the best! They are so great! All of them. The medics are exceptional and the rest of the team is just fantastic. Incredibly good people. So that’s where I get my energy from. At night, when I had a full day and I come down and I am crying, they are like ‘Oh, it’s okay Alice, everyone cries, it’s okay. Look at this’ and they show me a stupid video. And then, my team, my medical team, they give me complete free range of action and they are also always there, when I need them. So [they are] it is just the best, it is just so great! So this is, where I take my energy from.”
After the two days on board, Alice says goodbye to her ladies. Equipped with a medical record and the results from the consultations, Alice hopes that her work will help the women to get asylum. Despite the large number of female refugees who were on board after the last rescue, Alice knows every single woman by name when she says good-bye to them upon our arrival at shore. For her, the main objective of this mission is to restore dignity. And certainly calling someone by their name is a first, very important step. “It makes them feel special – because they are! They are incredibly special and they have been through a lot!”
Alice will stay on board the Aquarius until August. She promised to visit me in Berlin and I am already looking forward to welcoming her here!
*Name was changed
Verena is part of the communications team of SOS MEDITERRANEE Germany. She joined the organization in the very beginning, when there was no rescue vessel. During her stay on board the Aquarius in May, she had the opportunity to interview Alice
Photos: Kenny Karpov, Susanne Friedel, Alice Gautreau