When Madeleine Habib went sailing for the first time at age 22, she knew what she wanted to do with her life. “It really moved me,” she said at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Saturday. “Suddenly I found this thing that was a mental and physical challenge, and I thought: That’s where I want to be.”
She is now captain of the Médecins Sans Frontières ship Dignity One, where she rescues refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. She is one of just a handful of women captains around the world. “Less than one percent of the maritime industry in general is represented by women—and the percentage of female captains is definitely less than that,” she said. In a frank and personal talk with journalist and foreign-policy expert Rula Jebreal, she described the plight of global refugees and how it feels when she helps pull desperate, displaced people from the sea.
“You don’t leave home because you want [to have] a widescreen T.V. in Europe. You leave home because home is not a place where you can live anymore,” she said, describing the often-misunderstood mindset of refugees. “Every single person who is in the world is a person. It doesn’t matter what your color or your age or your race is, we all have the same rights, we’re all worthy of respect, and we should all be able to travel safely and legally to a place of safety.”
Habib, who has also served as a ship captain for Greenpeace in the past, described refugees adrift at sea in “horrific” conditions—hundreds of people crammed onto unstablewobbly rubber boats on the verge of collapse, fearing for their lives and unsure who to trust. “You start your journey and you have no idea where it’s going to lead you,” she said. “People are not necessarily in control of their destiny when they end up in one of those boats.”
When asked how the U.S.-led airstrikes on Syria will affect the refugee crisis, she said, “You can’t bomb your way to peace. Bombing is not a way forward. Yes, it will have an impact on the refugee crisis. There will be more people displaced. When you make a place unsafe to live, people move.”
The name of her ship, Dignity One, is symbolic, she noted, because, “We all deserve dignity and we all deserve respect. I can tell you that when we rescue these people and we take them from the water and they’re greeted by an outstretched, ungloved hand, and you look these people in the eye, it might be the first time in many years that anyone has shown them some kindness.”
She admitted that the refugee crisis can seem overwhelming. “I think it can be intimidating, and I know that when when I’ve gone out on deck and been looking into the face of 300, 400, 500 people on the deck of a rescue boat, it’s an overwhelming crush of humanity. But what you have to see is not a problem—you have to see potential energy. You have to see what these people have to offer. And we have to share. The affluent countries, we’re just pushing back, we’re putting up barriers, we’re saying, well it’s OK for us, we have comfortable beds and our lives are good. No, we have to expand. We have to open up.”
She said there are 65 million displaced people in the world today, 32 million of whom are women and girls. The refugee crisis, she added, is like a balloon: “If you close a border, you squeeze one point of the balloon, and yes, OK, so they can’t pass that way anymore, but it just balloons in another place. You’re not solving the problem by closing borders. We need to solve the problem by creating safe and legal pathways.”
She described one rescue that is particularly close to her heart. A 25-year old woman named Collins was working as an assistant nurse in a hospital in Cameroon. After two years without pay, she had to make the tough decision to leave her son with her mother and travel with her husband to the north of the country. There, her town was stormed by Boko Haram, and she got kidnapped. She eventually escaped and managed to get to Libya, where she paid for passage to Europe on a rubber boat.
When Habib and her crew rescued her along with hundreds of others, Collins was eight months pregnant. A midwife aboard the ship helped her give birth—four hours later. “I had the joyous duty and task to go out onto deck and to tell everybody that a baby had just been born,” Habib said. “The deck was crowded with people. Everybody’s exhausted, seasick, and in shock. When I told them a baby had been born on board, there was such a change in atmosphere. Everybody’s throwing their hands in the air and clapping and singing. It made me recognize the strength of the human spirit and our ability to have joy and to celebrate and to be hopeful, even in the direst situations.”
Later, however, she had a reality check, as she wondered about the fate of the young woman’s husband and son, and if she would ever get refugee status. “The story is not over,” Habib said. To that end, she noted, “You can lobby for change. You can welcome refugees and displaced people in your community. You can recognize that everybody has a story, a unique story.”
Additional reporting by Gina Kim.