A little-known priest is competing with Pope Francis for the Nobel Peace Prize this week – and has even been given the pontiff’s blessing.
Father Mussie Zerai, a 40-year-old 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 mobile phone. Father Zerai is often woken up in the night by calls from migrants crying for help from flimsy boats taking on water, and from those inside stifling cargo compartments of lorries in the Sahara.
He then communicates the GPS co-ordinates of the migrants, who call him from satellite phones, to Italy’s coast guard and EU naval authorities so that rescue crews are launched.
Kristian Berg Hapviken, the head of Oslo’s Peace Research Institute, said Father Zerai is one of his favourites to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which is announced on Oct 9.
The Pope, nominated for his focus on social justice and the environment, would likely not be disappointed by such an outcome. Father Zerai told The Daily Telegraph yesterday that the two met 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’,” recalls Father Zerai, who divides his time between Italy and Switzerland, where he ministers to the growing Eritrean diaspora. The telephone calls started in 2003, when he gave his number to a journalist who needed help translating the accounts of Eritreans stuck in Libyan detention camps. His number got passed along by word of mouth, then someone scrawled it on the wall of a Libyan prison.
Over the past 15 years, he has become a one-man crisis call centre for the Mediterranean as his mobile number spread across the detention centres and refugee camps of North Africa.
He now fields calls from as far away as Yemen and Indonesia. Overwhelmed, he founded the mostly volunteer “Watch the Med” call centre, today staffed by several dozen multilingual volunteers. Father Zerai, who is a counsellor at next month’s One Young World summit, a global forum for young leaders, said he does not expect to win the Nobel, but by being nominated he hopes migrants have been given a voice in an international community which too often turns a blind eye to horrors happening on its shores.
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