Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Mixture of Hardship and Hope as Maritime Charities Look Forward to Christmas

Ships Crews Abandoned and Other Sad Tales at Sea from Around the Globe
Shipping News Feature
UK – MOZAMBIQUE – SOUTH AFRICA – WORLDWIDE – It seems that, like buses, you wait for news from maritime charities and three come along at once. That said Christmas approaches and the hardships of others are at the forefront of the minds of many. Sadly it seems the perennial problems of sailors abandoned by uncaring vessels owners, or trapped in ports far from home by circumstances, continue unabated, and it is those charities who are often the only ones which deal with the hardship such crews endure.

In the UK, Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) responded to the pastoral needs of a bulk carrier crew, Star Nina when vessel’s captain fell ill and subsequently died. The ship had been at anchorage near Immingham Port since October 23 when the master suffered a heart attack on board on November 15. He was immediately evacuated from the ship but was pronounced dead by shore paramedics.

When the vessel berthed in port on November 26, port chaplains from the charity, also known worldwide as Star Maris (Star of the Sea) responded to the crew’s request for support. Father Colum Kelly, AoS Immingham Port Chaplain attended and said a particularly poignant part of his conversation with the crew was when he asked the acting captain why they had continued to be kept at anchorage for 11 days after the skipper’s death.

He said the answer was the crew had been told that this was due to ‘berth congestion and priority cargo’, something which displeased Fr Kelly who takes up the story:

“Doesn’t that say something awful about the treatment of seafarers even in the midst of tragedy? Their need was determined by what they were carrying in the ship’s hold. We were waiting for them to come in to Immingham so we could help. It was a very sad and difficult time for them. They had been at anchorage for over a month, plus their voyage from Brazil meant they had been at sea for a month and a half. Not only did we pray for the deceased captain but also his family and indeed the crew who was deeply traumatised by this sad event. They were so thankful that we could organise Mass for them.”

This year alone, AoS provided bereavement support for crew in eight cases involving deaths at sea in ports including Tilbury, Dublin, Durban and Tema. AoS also provides follow up visits and care to bereaved crew through its global network of over 1,000 chaplains and ship visitors in more than 300 ports.

Meanwhile halfway across the world it is the second year in a row that Asmael Alsarwt and Seyed Nasr Soltan are stranded, abandoned by their ship's owner, they are thousands of miles from home. Since being abandoned on their vessel the PSD2 in Mozambique’s Beira port in 2017, the men have received the support of Sailors' Society's Crisis Response Network (CRN).

Asmael is the ship's captain; he comes from Syria and is married with two children, a five-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. Sailors' Society's chaplains are not only providing him with emotional support through his ordeal, but also the practical means to get home. The charity's CEO Stuart Rivers explained:

“Asmael wasn't expecting to be away from home for nearly as long as he has been. As a result, his passport expired and we have provided practical support by liaising with the Syrian Embassy in Pretoria to help him get a new one so he can get home to see his family.”

The support the charity has provided has been a truly global effort, with chaplain Azarias Muchanga travelling across Mozambique to supply the men with care, provisions and medication. The ship left Mozambique and travelled to South Africa, where it was once again abandoned and has remained ever since. Durban-based chaplains Paul Richardson and Jessie John have also been supporting the men throughout their ordeal and visit the vessel every week to ensure that their essential needs are met.

Asmael and Seyed have remained on board the ship, knowing that if they go home they may not be paid for their work. Some, like their colleague Mohammed Jahangir Alam, have no choice but to leave the vessel. Mohammed, a Bangladeshi chief engineer, was repatriated by the charity when his wife tragically lost her fight against cancer. Sadly, he didn't make it home for her funeral.

Sailors' Society's community development manager in India, Manoj Joy, has been helping Mohammed piece back his family's life together. Through his shipping contacts, Manoj has helped secure a grant from the Merchant Navy Officers' Association towards Mohammed's children's education. Rev Boet van Schalkwyk, who heads up the CRN in Africa, said:

“The PSD2 crew was in a very bad situation. There were four of them left on board when we first saw them in Beira, none of whom had been paid any wages since they joined. Once the ship is abandoned, it can be sold, but these things take time and that can have a huge effect on the seafarers who are left to wait for their outstanding wages.

”During one of the ship visits, the crew asked if we could get them fishing rods so they could become partly self-sufficient. Since we provided them with the equipment they've managed to catch quite a few big fish. Separation and isolation constantly present new issues of crisis for abandoned seafarers. Helping them to deal with their feelings of anger, fear and hopelessness is vital and being there to help them is a privilege.”

The chaplains have also been supporting the men with practical support, such as groceries and medical needs and ensuring they keep up a dialogue regarding the welfare of the families back home. It was Asmael's birthday in October, another key milestone spent away from his loved ones. Jessie John commented:

“Paul and I bought him a cake and some treats. We spent a few hours with him; it might seem like a small gift but he was so excited and grateful. One of the seafarers had burnt his arm and told us that it wasn't healing, so Paul and I went to the pharmacy to get him some ointment. After that it healed very well.”

The constant worry, reinforced by a shortage of supplies and an uncertain future can cause mental health issues and Stuart Rivers continued:

“When seafarers like Mohammed face times of great crisis, our team is there to provide practical and emotional support. With the correct medical treatment, physical injuries sustained on board, like the seafarer's burn, can heal. However, being stranded in a foreign country for more than a year can cause real mental anguish, which is something our chaplains are all too familiar with seeing.

“Seafarers face some of the toughest conditions of any workforce, dangerous conditions, cramped living quarters, isolation, add on top of that being abandoned and not knowing when you'll see your loved ones again, the mental health implications are huge. Seafarers transport 90% of the goods we rely upon on a daily basis and are the life blood of the industry and our global economy, it's crucial we are there to support them when crisis hits.”

Mental health was also at the top of the agenda at the Mission to Seafarers annual Festival of Nine Carols & Lessons in London on December 4 when, speaking to many leading industry figures, including the UK Shipping Minister Ms Nusrat Ghani MP, the Mission reaffirmed its commitment to developing new mental health services in 2019 in response to increasing concerns around mental wellbeing at sea, acknowledging the work many shipping companies are doing to tackle issues such as loneliness and isolation, but calling for a renewed focus on reaching vulnerable seafarers who may be unable to access existing resources. The Revd Canon Andrew Wright, Secretary General, The Mission to Seafarers, said:

“While many of the stresses that seafarers face are the same as they were 20 years ago, new concerns are emerging as more and more ships start to provide internet access to their crew. Our Seafarers’ Happiness Index, which uses the data from our conversations with thousands of seafarers around the globe, clearly shows that a lack of connectivity is one of the greatest issues facing seafarers today.

“Many cite poor or no connectivity as a major contributor towards unhappiness at work, leading to increased pressure on mental health. If shipping companies want to retain happy and motivated seafarers, they will have to ensure their crews have access to fast and reliable internet. However, we recognise that with greater connectivity comes other pressures for seafarers. Access to real-time news about what is going on back home can also add to stress and anxiety. Consequently, the Mission is rolling out new programmes in 2019 in response to this key issue, which will complement our existing services.”

The Festival of Nine Carols & Lessons service was followed by a reception, attended by Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, President of The Mission to Seafarers, where she met loyal supporters of the charity. The Mission has launched a Christmas campaign to raise awareness of the issues currently facing seafarers, particularly the loneliness many feel around the festive period as a result of being separated from their families and loved ones.

So far, over £40,000 has been raised from online donations and sponsorship of the Christmas carol service, all of which will go towards running the Mission’s vital welfare services across the globe, including its new support network in Panama. Last month, the Mission signed an MoU with the Panama Maritime Authority for the provision of seafarer welfare services, the first of its kind in the region. The agreement will enable the Mission to establish welfare services at all major Panamanian ports, including the Panama Canal, one of the busiest waterways in the world.

All three of the abovementioned charities continue to great work but rely on financial support, particularly from the maritime community. Donations can be made using any of the links shown throughout this story.

Photo: Seyed, one of the PSD2’s abandoned crew.