A one-man 911 for immigrants crossing the Mediterranean

For tens of thousands of desperate migrants, their fragile boats in peril of sinking beneath the Mediterranean waves, his cellphone number has meant the difference between life and death.

Countless times over the past 14 years, refugees seeking a new life in Europe have placed their faith in the Rev. Mussie Zerai, calling him in distress. He, in turn, has informed the Italian Coast Guard of the emergencies, and they have arranged a rescue.

Father Zerai, an Eritrean Roman Catholic priest, has earned the nickname “guardian angel of the refugees.” He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. But now, as the public mood in Italy turns against migrants from Africa and the Middle East, he finds himself under investigation by a public prosecutor looking into illegal people trafficking. In some peoples’ eyes he is a devil.

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Zerai, a heavyset man in a white soutane, a crucifix hanging from his neck, laughs at this new twist of fate. “I didn’t identify myself before as an angel and now I don’t accept that I’m a devil,” he chuckles. “I am just a normal person. When I know that a person’s life is in danger, my duty is to help save it.”

A NUMBER ON A PRISON WALL

Zerai, also known as “Father Moses,” was thrown headfirst and unwarned into the drama of Europe’s migrant crisis when his phone rang at 3 a.m. one morning 14 years ago. “I was sleeping,” he recalls, “and at first I didn’t understand. I thought it was a joke. But when I heard many people shouting ‘Help us, we’re in danger’ I realized that something had happened.”

He was a seminarist at the time; he woke his rector and asked for advice. “If they are in danger at sea, ring the Coast Guard,” his mentor said. So that’s what he did.

How did someone with a satellite phone in a packed refugee boat off the coast of Libya have Zerai’s number? And how did it spread so far and wide among migrants? He figured that out only years later.

He had once helped translate for an Italian journalist writing about the fate of Eritrean refugees in Libyan detention centers. The journalist, it seemed, had given his phone number to the refugees.

Eight years later Zerai got a call from an American journalist reporting from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. “He asked me if I knew that my number was written on a prison wall.”

Zerai has lost count of the number of distress calls he has fielded. But since…

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