It was an early morning in the summer of 2013. A fragile-seeming Sicilian 27-year-old takes the first panicked call: hundreds of Syrians were lost in the Mediterranean aboard a boat. Nawal Soufi calls the Italian coastguard, who quickly explains how she could tell the terrified migrants how to find their GPS coordinates on their satellite phones and ensure they could be rescued. After several long hours of silence, Soufi breathed a sigh of relief: everyone on the boat had been saved.
Since that morning, the same scenario has played out hundreds of times and Nawal, as she is universally known in Italy, has become a symbol of hope for many migrants risking their lives to make it to Europe.
"A call can come at any time. Migrants at sea shout: 'There are 500 people on board, we have been at sea for 10 days and there is no more water,'" the young woman tells during the launch of a book about her life, 'Nawal, the refugees' angel.' "Italy has a reception system that is full of holes but its rescue system is one of the best in Europe," she says proudly.
Born in Morocco but an Italian resident, Nawal owes her current role to the passion she developed for the 2011 uprising in Syria.
In 2013, she was part of a team which took an ambulance full of medical drugs into Aleppo, handing out her phone number to everyone she met.
It has since been widely shared amongst would-be asylum seekers. Despite her placing direct contacts for the coastguard on her Facebook page, her phone continues to ring. On the page, which is in Arabic, she regularly posts recordings of her telephone conversations along with her weary remarks about the horrors of the crisis.
On April 20, Nawal was on the quay in Catania, lost amidst dozens of reporters who had come to witness the arrival of 28 survivors of the Mediterranean's worst migrant disaster to date, which claimed the lives of some 800 people. For her, there was no time for mourning, she was already taking yet another call on her clapped out old phone, which she retains because of its tireless battery.
Being the good Samaritan she is, she also fields anxious pleas from relatives trying to find out if a son, a mother or a husband have survived.
When she has tried taking a break and given her phone to friends or family to maintain the watch, it has always been handed back to her within a day by individuals who are unable to cope with the relentless stream of anxiety. Mussie Zerai, a priest who has been receiving similar calls from Eritreans since 2003 told, "Fortunately there are young committed people like Nawal. I admire her courage, it is not easy, especially for a young woman in the south of Italy."
When she is not on the phone, Nawal studies political science in Catania and works part time as an interpreter for the courts. "My work is to block the land-based traffickers, explain to the asylum seekers they can change their dollars in a bank or take a train for Milan without going through intermediaries," she said.
Every evening she goes home to a loving and proud mother who asks only one thing of her daughter: that she answer her calls as quickly as the ones she receives from the Mediterranean.