Local Hero: From Vancouver to the Front Lines of the Refugee Crisis

Nurse Courtney Bercan on what it's like to be on a rescue mission in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

February 3, 2017

By Jessica Barrett / Photo: Courtney Bercan

As soon as Courtney Bercan discovered Medicins Sans Frontieres-Doctors Without Borders, she knew she wanted to work with the NGO. In fact, its why the 32-year-old Vancouverite became a nurse. Her first mission at a hospital in Congo was eye-opening, but nothing could prepare Bercan for the four months she spent last year treating desperate refugees plucked from the Mediterranean Sea as they made the perilous crossing from Libya to Europe. Here, she tells us what it’s like to be on the front lines of the refugee crisis, and how the experience changed her forever.

This was your second assignment with MSF, where were you based out of?

It was on a boat. Doctors Without Borders has three boats for the high season in the Mediterranean. Our boat was based out of Malta but our search-and-rescue zone was off the coast of Libya. We would drop the refugees off in Sicily normally, but we were primarily bobbing around in the rescue zone [looking for refugee boats].

What are these refugee boats like? What sorts of vessels are coming at you? 

We saw two types of boats generally: there are wooden boats — fishing boats basically — and those could have up to 500, sometimes 700 people on them. They’re extremely precarious. In some ways they’re stronger than the rubber dinghies, but often they will cram the hull full of people and the hull becomes extremely hot — there’s not a lot of oxygen, there’s fuel sloshing round and that’s when it’s not uncommon to find 20, 30, 50 people dead when we come across a boat.

The other main type of vessel they would use are these white rubber dinghies that should probably have 20 or 30 people maximum, and the average was 120 that they would put on. Our sister ship saw as many as 160 on one of them, which is just — you can’t believe how packed that is. There’s no room to breathe basically. People don’t have life jackets, if someone moves, the whole boat is at risk of capsizing.

Who are all these refugees? Where are they from? 

We definitely had quite a few from Syria, but we also had quite a few from Eritrea, which is definitely one of Africa’s most brutal dictatorships. Eritrea is one of the top refugee-producing nations at the moment. Quite a few from Somalia, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, tons of West African migrants, some of which are fleeing Boko Haram in Nigeria, or militant groups in say, Mali, and some of which are just leaving very difficult lives in their home countries. Not everyone is fleeing conflict, but everyone is fleeing a challenging existence.

What sort of condition are these people in when they get onto your boat?

It depends how long they’ve been in the water. We might come across a boat that’s only been in the water for five hours and they haven’t had too much sun exposure or dehydration. When they come on they’re kind of more joyous and happy and singing and praying and crying. And then you’ll come across boats that have been in the water for a day or several days and then the conditions of the patients tend to be a lot poorer. People are dehydrated; people are extremely seasick. People have already started dying at that point in the boat, so people are pretty panicked.

What was the day-to-day life like aboard the boat?

Say we were sailing from the rescue area off the coast of Libya to Malta where we would resupply: that’s a 20-hour sail, so we would clean the boat, prepare the boat, prepare the food, the kits— everything we would give the refugees when they came on board. We would normally have some sort of idea whether there’d be a rescue the next day based on the weather conditions and the political conditions. We would get coordinates or we would get distress calls and we would search for the boats, or our own sailors would find them on the radar.

Once we found a boat we would start to load the refugees onto our ship. Often the [human] smugglers will send boats out en masse, so there’d be a week’s worth of bad weather — where we’re kind of just bobbing around preparing, doing training and that sort of thing — and then suddenly the weather would be good and they’d send out 4,000 people in different boats. So you go from kind of preparing, feeling anxious, twiddling your thumbs, to an insane volume of work, essentially.

They’d send out 4,000 people?

Thousands. I think one day there was up to 7,000 in the water. Our own boat had over 700 people on it and our normal capacity is about 350. Like, it was either you leave people in dinghies that are going to sink at any moment, or you take them on board and deal with how they get dispersed later.

Then we’d start the rescues [bringing people on board and giving them medical attention], which would take generally all day or a day and a half. And then from there we would sail to Europe, which would take two or three days.

Are the smugglers out there on the water too? Or do they just point them in the right direction and wash their hands of it?

It kind of depends. Sometimes they’ll put a low-level smuggler on — and this is what I’ve read because we don’t ask if there are any smugglers on the boat. We treat everyone the same. From what I’ve read, sometimes the person steering might be a low-level smuggler. Sometimes they kind of wait. We would sometimes see a small fishing vessel a couple of miles off from the dinghy, you kind of get the feeling that they’re waiting for the migrants to get taken out of the boat and then try to steal the engine back and use it for more migrants.

Is anybody out there trying to arrest these people?

The EU has a fleet that’s primarily the Italian military and coast guard. Those are the people that would be dealing with destroying the boats. It’s not a battle that most NGOs can be out there fighting.

I read one of your blogs on women who have been recently raped or sexually assaulted along their migration route. Is that a common occurrence?

Yeah. Super, super, super common. It’s an extremely perilous route for women. I read a lot of comments on articles that I shouldn’t read, but a lot of people are like ‘well why are all the refugees military-aged men?’ It’s not safe for women to do the trip. Often women have children and they can’t bring their kids and they can’t leave their kids behind. From the moment they start their trip, they are basically at the mercy of the smugglers or the traffickers.

Some women would come with concerns or asking for a pregnancy test, but we would try to ask women if they’d experienced trauma of that sort in Libya when we had time. And if you asked them if they’d been raped, and they hadn’t, I can almost guarantee that the answer was ‘no I haven’t but I was very lucky. The men came in every night and picked a different woman.’ Some would hide in refrigerator boxes; we had dads that would hide their young teen daughters; we had quite a few women who were pregnant, who couldn’t go to the hospital because often if they go out in public as a single young female in Libya they’ll be kidnapped and sold into sex slavery or whatever happens to them from there.

The one in my blog, she did have HIV, so that’s also something that happens.

How are you changed from having this experience? It must have had a profound impact on you.

It really did. I don’t know what I was expecting but it’s an incredibly intense experience. You are working so closely with people over several days. You’re seeing the struggles that people have, really all over the world, just again, and again, and again.

In the Congo, for example, you can kind of compartmentalize a little. It’s possible to look at it as an issue for that province or that region and not be so overwhelmed with the fact that you are getting people from 15 nationalities on your boat. At any one time and they’re all telling you these stories of the challenging lives they’ve led, and the absolute hell they’ve gone through to get to where they are.

It was very, very eye-opening to me. It’s a privilege check I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

You must have a different perspective now on how the refugee crisis is viewed in North America?

It’s kind of hard to say because I did put myself on a media blackout while I was on the ship. It was too hard to read some of the comments that would come from my own citizens sometimes. You’re reading about your own day and your patients that have died on a media site. And then seeing the comments by people who are sitting at home or in Europe or wherever. They don’t see these migrants as human beings. They don’t see them as having loved ones. They don’t see them as having stories. And essentially the migrants are them. We are the exact same. It’s just we happen to be born in a different place and if you were in their situation, you would do the exact same thing. I don’t know if everyone really understands that, or feels responsible to try to understand that.

But at the same time I’ve had a ton of support and a ton of people who’ve wanted to get involved and show a lot of compassion and empathy. That’s wonderful to see as well.

What is a way people who are safely ensconced in Vancouver and Canada can support these people?

Lots of NGOs support migrants both on the Mediterranean and once they arrive in Europe, and in their countries before they leave. The Red Cross, for instance. If financially they choose to give, that’s an option. But also just liking their pages on Facebook and getting updates on the situation and staying informed.

One of the biggest things for us is: our attitudes kind of inform our politics. It’s normal and I think OK to be afraid of change and to be perhaps trepidatious of different cultures that you’re not familiar with. But if that’s the case then I just hope we stay curious and we stay kind and we don’t allow for racist, xenophobic remarks to become the norm in our culture and in our politics.

The problems our countries have are complex and we just cannot blame a group of immigrants. It’s just not an acceptable scapegoat and it’s not going to bring a solution. I hope Canadians are smarter than that; more empathetic than that. But I think we have to be vigilant.

Donations in support of Doctors Without Borders can be made here.

Local Hero is a new series celebrating people who work to make our world, our city, or their community a better place. If you know someone who does extraordinary work — paid or unpaid — tell us about it! Email Jessica.Barrett@vanmag.com

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.