Phoenix rising /

Swaddled in pink and white, the baby flails her arms wide, attempting to embrace a mother who isn’t there. Her face appears pale, tear-stained. I reach down to lift her from the small motor launch that has just rescued the infant from a wooden fishing boat sinking in the waters of the Mediterranean.

August 30, 2014. I have just turned 33. The launch bobs alongside my ship, Phoenix, a craft I outfitted to provide assistance for migrants at sea. As I lean over the gunwale, an emotion strikes me that’s among the strongest I’ve ever experienced.
Our roles are switched. I’m not saving the baby. The baby is saving me.

Because of her, I have a vision of what it means to be truly human. The dead certainty hits me that were it not for my ship, this infant would have drowned, this tiny life would have been snuffed out. Seeing a child snatched from the hands of death is shattering. If I weren’t in the midst of a physical act—bend body at waist, lean over, extend arms to accept child—I’d have dropped to the deck of Phoenix, stunned.

What just happened? I’m usually so confident and self-assured, keeping my doubts well camouflaged. A little baby has suddenly knocked the stuffing out of me. She demands action on my part. I have no choice.

Love has gripped me, and there’s nothing that I can do about it.

My life up until that moment had been aimed at continually enlarging my arena of choice. It was all about possibility. Growing up I had been severely limited by circumstance. I hadn’t liked it. So as I entered adulthood I made it a point to kick through anything stopping me. And I had largely succeeded. I became wealthy and free to make my own choices. I became a master of my fate. Now this tiny migrant child had made me master of hers.

The baby’s name was Amena. She was only two months old. She and her parents had fled the civil war in Syria in a leaky wooden craft laden with 320 refugees, mainly Syrians but also Palestinians. Amena took her place among a huge exodus, thousands of desperate souls streaming out from Syria and Libya and northern Africa. They crowded into fishing boats and rubber dinghies, facing a perilous Mediterranean crossing in hopes of a better life in Europe.

My action with MOAS placed me squarely on the front lines of what the United Nations Refugee Commissioner labeled “a reflection of a world in chaos”—sixty million displaced people worldwide. In spring 2015 my ship, Phoenix, was the only non-governmental organization (NGO) search and rescue vessel patrolling the Mediterranean dedicated to saving migrant lives. Then came this year’s massive surge of refugees and asylum seekers, and human tragedy of an unspeakable scale, as well as a political and media firestorm.

I’m not the only person who has embarked on a quest to save the Amenas of the world. But I might be the only one who has turned his life around and sunk a small fortune into making it happen.

I was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but as a boy I was never allowed to settle anywhere for very long. During my childhood, the Catrambone family moved thirty-five times. I like to say that I was a migrant before I knew what a migrant was. In my foot-loose twenties I began working as a private eye, performing claims investigations for insurance companies.

That experience led to the founding of my own company, Tangiers Group. We ventured into the world’s most dangerous places, insuring people with the riskiest jobs on the planet: aid workers and military contractors. In Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, I came face to face with the horrors of war.

Through it all I felt painfully torn about what I was doing.

I built a global company with hundreds of employees. Tangiers Group made my fortune. The money flooding war zones can be astronomical. I had a net worth of $10 million before I was thirty years old.

So if you had to talk about my life, you could see it as a sort of a rags-to-riches story. I didn’t grow up with money or luxury. I built everything I have from scratch, through hard work and dedication. At some point, I started seeing myself as getting caught up in the money side of things. I identified it as hubris, to some extent. I’ve seen it happening to a lot of people. They start making the pursuit of money an end in itself.

When I was young I thought having money would make me happy. It didn’t. My prosperity was earned in the midst of carnage. My best days financially were the worst possible days for others. I’d get a call about a suicide bomb attack and I knew that it meant a healthy payday for my company. When I looked in the mirror, I found myself very uneasy about my life.

Approaching thirty and spurred by my doubts, I began a quest for something more, something different, something meaningful.

On a trip to Italy to trace the roots of my immigrant great-grandfather, I journeyed to Reggio di Calabria, where I met my future wife Regina on a beach. With our daughter, Maria Luisa, we made a beautiful family. I was well off and living in Malta, the beautiful island republic that floats off the coast of Sicily. I still directed the gritty work of Tangiers Group, but my family became central to me.

Then, on a summer day in 2013, there came an incident that changed the course of my life. That June, Regina and I chartered a 75-foot yacht for a Mediterranean vacation cruise. We did one every year. I had always loved the days we spent together, away from it all. We poked along the coast of Sicily, headed for Tunisia. The sun shone, the sea sparkled. We were out of cell-phone range from the busy world.

But that year the busy world intruded on our idyll.

“What’s that?” Regina asked, looking over the side and gesturing to a tan piece of clothing drifting off the port bow.

“A jacket or coat of some sort,” said our first officer, Marco Cauchi. “It probably came off a migrant boat that sank somewhere nearby.”

Marco told us a story from his time as a search and rescue (SAR) commander with the Armed Forces of Malta. He described how, during one military rescue, he’d watched a boat loaded with migrants sink right before his eyes. “There were 29 people on this boat that capsized, and most could not swim,” Marco said. “I saw those big eyes open, and I saw him go down so fast. I couldn’t reach him. It stayed with me always.”

Marco’s eyewitness testimony, combined with that tattered and waterlogged coat, spoke a whole story. I remember my sentiment exactly. “Look at us, cruising on our boat, at the same time people are out there dying,” I said. “So our paradise is their disaster, right? Our heaven is their hell.”

I’m the type of guy who looks for signs in my life, signs to point the way, signs to guide me. Does wealth truly give us happiness? Has it given us the satisfaction that we are good citizens, that are we doing the right thing?

Regina and I looked at each other. For the rest of our cruise, we couldn’t shake the idea that death haunted the waters around us. The Mediterranean had become the most dangerous migrant route in the world, with a single stretch of open water accounting for seventy-five percent of all migrant deaths. In the three years since the Arab Spring, the situation had exploded into a full-on humanitarian crisis. A shipwreck off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in October 2013, in which 360 migrants had drowned, cemented my resolve.

Lampedusa has a wonderful stretch of white sand called Rabbit Beach. It’s always rated as one of the top beaches in the world. Regina and I had always wanted to visit. Then we learned that there were bodies of refugees literally washing ashore on this most beautiful beach. Were we going to have a nice swim in the same water where these people were dying? It was gruesome, and it was wrong.

I had to act.

There were charities helping migrants in Africa, and charities helping landed migrants, but there were no NGOs helping during the most dangerous part, the sea crossing. That fall, Regina and I created the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. We took nearly half of our savings, $8 million of our own money, and used it to purchase and outfit Phoenix, a 431 ton, 40-meter (130-foot) vessel, equipped with military-spec search drones and Navy SEAL style rigid-hulled inflatable boats. We staffed the ship with an experienced team of rescuers and paramedics. MOAS would act as a bridge over troubled waters.

But I had leaped before I knew where I would land. It took Amena to bring our mission into sharp focus for me. The little slip of an infant girl came aboard Phoenix on our very first rescue mission. As I gathered her into my arms, I realized something that I had known in the abstract but hadn’t fully understood. So many of them are children.

The politics swirling around migrants are thorny and incredibly overheated. Extend refugees a helping hand and soon enough you’ll have bigots screaming curses at you. Risk-averse governments are hesitant to act. We didn’t know where the people we were saving were going to wind up. Would they be granted safe haven? Returned to their homelands?

None of that mattered, I now recognized.

Save lives first. Sort out the politics later.

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