I'm finally free of TweetDeck and on board the Bourbon Argos, MSF's largest search and rescue boat in the Central Mediterranean. I've got a megaphone and I'm doing the French translation of our welcome speech for the 500 people we've just rescued. I'm making mistakes but our new guests clap and cheer as I say "Libya is over" and a big fat tear rolls down my cheek. This deadly sea is their lifeline and this bloody megaphone is making me cry.
On our trip to Italy over the next few days, I meet some of the most motivated and resilient people I've ever come across. Two in particular stay with me. The first is Mamadou*. He tells me that in Libya they hung him upside down and beat the bottom of his feet, put something electric on his testicles and beat him with sticks. I ask him if he would have gone to Libya if he'd known what it would be like. "Of course", he replies. The second is Joy*. Like me, she's 29 but unlike me she's lived a very hard life. She's got chunky tattoos on her neck from her pimp at home and scars all over her body from an accident in Libya. She's hardened but I like her sass and she confides in me over the coming days. Her stories of repeated rape give me nightmares. In Italy I hug her goodbye and she thanks me. "You hugged me when I was dirty and you didn't care. You are like my sister." Then she tries to convince me to give her my sunglasses. They're my favourites so I resist. I wish her luck in Europe, get a taxi to the airport, take out my shiny blue passport and my European residency card and fly back home. "God, you're definitely the lucky sister" says my partner as I tell him the story later that night.
Weeks later, I'm back in Brussels working my day job as Migration Campaign Manager for MSF, and community manager for @MSF_Sea and six small words, unexpectedly throw me into a rage.
"You should probably chuck him back". The tweet refers to a baby boy born on board on one of our boats; just hours after his mama had fled Libya. He's named Newman and despite the odds, he's fat and perfect. His mother, having delivered safely with proper medical assistance is simultaneously the luckiest and unluckiest woman alive. After 18 months experience running this account almost 24/7 and years more addressing migration trolls in my everyday life (I'm Australian), I barely hesitate before sharing a public reply. Supporters and colleagues alike respond and ask me not to feed the trolls but I persevere.
We started @MSF_Sea as we launched search and rescue activities in May 2015, planning to share live updates from the boats as well as the myriad stories of the human faces behind the headlines. We thought it would be a good tool for media but also give us some space to build empathy and compassion for our patients. Since then, the so-called migration crisis has made daily headlines (sometimes thanks to our tweets!). But, where in 2015 Europe swelled with compassion as Aylan Kurdi's lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey, November 2016, is flooded with little but politically convenient xenophobia and fear, and our little twitter account has become all the more emotional and important.
Tonight, at dinner parties all over Europe, those who mourned the death of Aylan are uttering the same sentences as @MSF_Sea's many trolls.
"They're military aged Muslim males - Let them drown!"
"She's not a real refugee she's just an economic migrant, send her back to Libya"
"Rescuing these people is only encouraging others to come. Let them drown so their brothers stay away."
"He's just a dirty asylum shopper if he was really in danger he'd stay in the first SAFE country."
Their silent friends and family seated across the table have no idea how to respond; this rhetoric is so common that it's often not countered at all and instead, in some countries at least, put on the front page of the newspaper and repeated by politicians. It is only a drop in the ocean of a very rough sea but If MSF with over 40 years' experience working with refugees and migrants can't respond to the populist anti-migrant bile that is sweeping across Europe, who can? So we continue to try.
*Names have been changedSuggest a correction