Medicine student Jendrik Dedow volunteered for Sea-Watch
Spending two weeks aboard a ship with a tiny, poorly ventilated hut, helping refugees as they grow weaker by the minute in their rickety boats, trying to avoid the trigger-happy Libyan coastguard – these are not the usual experiences of a third-year UM medical student. Jendrik Dedow (24, international track), originally from Hamburg, spent the first half of July working with Sea-Watch, a German non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to assisting refugee boats along the Libyan coast.
“On the plane to Malta I tried to think about how I’d respond to the situations I was going to face. But there’s just no way to prepare.” Dedow first made contact with Sea-Watch in January. His goal, first and foremost, was to help refugees. He also wanted to expand his own horizons, and use the opportunity to gain additional medical experience.
Dedow joined a fourteen-strong crew as part of the medical team, together with another student, a doctor and a paramedic. “When a refugee boat was detected our team sped over to them in a motorboat. Most people were suffering from hunger and thirst and were given an infusion. If they were found in the morning they often had hypothermia; by afternoon they were dehydrated. Others were psychologically in bad shape. Sometimes a refugee would have a breakdown after being rescued. Mostly we distributed food, drink, painkillers and lifejackets, and had to warm people up or calm them down. If their boat was in danger of sinking we took them on board. In two weeks, we helped almost two thousand people and took 129 on board.
“The work was extremely varied. Doing repairs and maintenance, hoisting the motorboat in and out of the water, and in my case communicating with the refugee boats. We didn’t have any real medical challenges. Thankfully I also didn’t see any bodies, although I did hear terrible stories about a boat whose engine room was full of corpses, and about women with burns on their legs and genitals because they’d been sitting in a mixture of fuel and seawater. The hardest part was a rescue mission where we spent about ten hours aboard the motorboat. But that’s no big deal compared to some missions that took a few days. Also, we were a little afraid of the unpredictable Libyan coastguard. Sometimes they were helpful, sometimes downright hostile. They didn’t follow any rules and they could start shooting at the least provocation.
“Personally I found it very difficult to see how badly the faith of some refugees had been tested. The refugees on one boat continually ignored us. They were probably afraid of being returned to Libya. We’d have to address them over and over again and look them straight in the eye until they were willing to believe us. Even then they were suspicious, always warning, ‘God is watching you!’ You could tell how often these people had been lied to, cheated and abused.
“You really only understand the depth of the misery when you’ve seen it with your own eyes. When you witness it yourself, you realise it’s people just like you and me floating around out there.” Few medical students spend time working with an NGO in a crisis area, Dedow says. “Maybe they don’t think they can make a difference on their own, or that you first have to be a fully qualified doctor. But you can do more than you think, even as a second- or third-year student. I plan on going again next summer.”