Rescuing Migrants From a Couch in Galicia

How a school administrator in Spain is helping save refugees with little more than fervor and a phone.

It is almost completely dark in Ángeles De Andrés’s sixth-floor apartment. A nightlight reflects off a 3-foot statue of the Madonna, which is flanked by porcelain angels. A red kilim covers the wooden floor.

Dressed in sweatpants and a blue shirt, De Andrés sits on her living room couch beside her fluffy white dog, Lana. The lights of the Galician port city of Vigo glow in the distance, though it is hard to make out the harbor through the diaphanous curtains. The massive wooden coffee table in front of her is covered with maps of the Aegean Sea; it takes up so much space that it is difficult to navigate the room.

She flicks her tablet with the little finger of her right hand, and her gaze intensifies in the light of the screen. Messages have been coming in throughout the day, via the instant messaging service WhatsApp, from refugees in Europe, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. A Syrian man named Kawa Horo, who is currently living in Sweden, has sent photographs of a Syrian refugee in Turkey who is injured. “This young man has a broken neck and needs a device for treatment,” he wrote to De Andrés. “Can we help him[?]”

Many people reach out to De Andrés this way, all of them seeking help and in varying stages of distress — a group of 30 Syrians lost on a raft in the Aegean, an Iraqi family without a place to stay in Erbil. Nearly 1.5 million refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have arrived in Europe by boat since 2015, according to the U.N. refugee agency; more than 11,000 have perished on the high seas in the attempt. Though the flow of migrants making the crossing has consistently declined since 2016, thousands are still attempting the journey.

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Over the past four years, De Andrés says she has built a network of about 3,000 refugees and volunteers without ever leaving her hometown of Vigo. She calls it “Red Alert” — a play on red, the Spanish word for net or network.

De Andrés is not a trained aid worker, but her collaborative efforts to track people attempting to cross the eastern Aegean have helped shine a light on urgent cases, providing assistance to those in need. Proactiva Open Arms, the Spanish lifeguard NGO that has plucked thousands of refugees from rubber rafts in the eastern Aegean and the Mediterranean Sea, credits her with having saved many lives.

That night De Andrés stays up until 3 a.m. responding to messages, though most of the problems passed her way go unresolved. In the days that follow, some progress is made: It turns out the man in Turkey needs around $3,500 for a neck prosthesis, so De Andrés reaches out to her WhatsApp network and online to friends to see how best to raise the funds. The Syrians whose raft was lost at sea made it safely to the Greek island of Chios. She says she plans to send $60 out of her own pocket via Western Union to the family in Erbil.

“We can’t stop war, nor can we save everybody,” De Andrés says. “But we can save this one and that one.”

Ángeles De Andrés sits in her home reviewing messages on WhatsApp. De Andrés is often awake until 3 a.m. tracking refugee emergencies on her network, Red Alert.

She is not, by her own admission, a typical humanitarian. De Andrés is afraid of flying, has no passport, and seldom strays more than 10 miles from Vigo, a picturesque coastal city in northwestern Spain near the border with Portugal where she has lived since she was 3 years old. It’s where she earned two degrees in business and tourism at a vocational training center.

Sturdy but compact, she has soft brown eyes and a self-effacing smile that hints at a kind of mischievousness. De Andrés speaks in deliberate sentences, the way a schoolteacher might address a classroom. Which is perhaps not surprising given the decades she has spent working at an after-school program for academically talented teenagers, which she owns and has run since 1990 from a modest office on the first floor of a stately building on Rúa Urzaiz, just beyond the city’s upscale Avenida Gran Vía. A portrait of Mother Teresa and a Buddha statue sit on the shelves behind her large wooden desk.

At 47, De Andrés does not smoke or drink and has never been married or had children. She is what she calls a “free Catholic.” She attends Mass and takes Communion, but her faith doesn’t keep her from being open-minded. “I don’t believe in extremes,” she says. “Neither in politics nor in religion.”

Red Alert came together not as the result of any one distinct action tied to a singular goal but from De Andrés’s obsessive web surfing and social networking. In 2013, when the Syrian war was in its second year, she was reading everything she could about the conflict. While scouring Facebook, she met Wael, a young refugee who had fled Syria in 2012 and was then living in Turkey.

“We talked about politics. We talked about [Bashar al-]Assad. We talked about ISIS,” Wael told me in a telephone conversation from Sweden, where he has lived since 2014. “We talked about how the war could not be stopped.” Their conversations, which took place in English, migrated from Facebook to Skype.

Wael felt he had no future in Turkey and was desperate to find a way into Europe, so De Andrés says she offered to help him try to resettle in Spain. In the meantime, Wael introduced De Andrés to other Syrian refugees on Facebook and WhatsApp.

She named the first WhatsApp group she created “Spanish Arab Team,” and after a few weeks, she was talking to dozens of Syrian refugees, trying to help in whatever way she could. When a family of refugees became separated after arriving in Athens from Turkey, she used the network to help reunite them. If people needed clothing, she says she would send money, sometimes donated by others but often from her own pocket, to be collected by the refugees at a local shop.

But it wasn’t until De Andrés met Mohamed Hassan Hajira, a Syrian refugee who had been a captain in the Syrian merchant marines, that Red Alert started coordinating operations.

In the fall of 2015, Hajira spotted an urgent message De Andrés had posted on Facebook about a group trying to cross the eastern Aegean: “One boat is sinking and needs help,” he remembers the message reading. He reached out to De Andrés, and their partnership began.

Hajira, known as Captain Mohamed inside the Red Alert group, says he fled his home of 41 years after being pressured by Syrian secret police to pay bribes in order to remain in the merchant marines. He traveled to Turkey and then, like the vast number of refugees coming to Europe, by boat from Izmir to Lesbos, Greece, before making his way north to the seaside town of Kalmar in Sweden.

At 47, Hajira is soft-spoken; his thinning hair and glasses make him look older than his years. He now works with Red Alert most days, often until 5 a.m.

“I see too many people are going to drown,” he says. “And so I promised myself I would help with the deaths at sea.”

Hajira’s partnership with De Andrés was critical for Red Alert’s success at sea. She was working with someone who understood sea charts and the importance of wave heights and winds in determining the trajectory of a lifeboat crossing from Turkey to Greece. Hajira knew that, for the most part, the trip could be made while maintaining contact online. Because
De Andrés does not speak Arabic, he opened a separate WhatsApp group for her where real-time translation to English could take place as the boats were crossing.

He and De Andrés divide the conversations with refugees getting ready to make a sea voyage into two separate phases: preparation and departure.

In the preparation phase, Red Alert advises refugees on essentials like how to determine whether a life jacket is safe and warns them to make their departures at night rather than in the morning when the sailing conditions are more dangerous.

Before they set off, the refugees inform the network of their positions via GPS (taking advantage of WhatsApp’s location-sharing feature) and the number of passengers on the boat. This is an important metric, Hajira says, because the inflatable rafts can easily sink if loaded beyond capacity. “If the boat is 9 meters,” he says, “it is a maximum of 40 people. If the boat is 6 meters, the maximum is 25 people. If there are more than 40 people, we give them the number of the Turkish police so they can catch the smuggler.” Once the journey begins, Hajira asks the refugees to ping their location every 30 minutes.

He and De Andrés have also developed an emergency text system by which refugees can signal even with a weak battery, texting “1” if the motor of the raft has stopped, for example. When the migrants aren’t in texting range, Hajira uses sea charts and examines the wind speed, currents, and the power of the raft’s motor to estimate the journey’s duration. If a boat does not call after a specified period of time, he and De Andrés call the Greek or Turkish coast guard.

Establishing a relationship with these coast guards was not easy; there isn’t a protocol for calling in rescues — just an emergency telephone number similar to “911” in the United States. Convincing the authorities that her calls were legitimate was more difficult still, and De Andrés says there were several times when she had to plead with Greek or Turkish authorities to launch rescue operations. The key, she says, was persistence and kindness.

This cajoling perseverance has served De Andrés well during the operations she has coordinated. Like on a spring night in 2016, when Red Alert helped an 18-year-old named Ivan navigate a rubber boat carrying some 50 people from Izmir in Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos.

It was a clear night. The sea was calm, and Ivan could see the stars.

It had been nearly three years since his family had fled the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria to Izmir, where, without the proper identification card, he wasn’t able to attend school and had to make ends meet by taking on odd jobs. Unable to access a formal education, he decided he would save his money to pay a smuggler more than $1,500 for the crossing to Europe.

On March 3, 2016, he and a group of around 50 others (including, he says, almost a dozen children) piled into a large van and were driven to a departure point on a secluded beach several hours from Izmir. Ivan, who had learned of De Andrés’s WhatsApp group through a Spanish journalist and translator weeks before in Izmir, began messaging the group just before the journey.

After the smugglers prepared the inflatable raft, Ivan says they approached him, offering a discount on his fee if he would agree to steer the boat. When he balked, he says they threatened him: If he didn’t do it, all of the passengers would be returning to Izmir. So he agreed.

Ivan, who asked that only his first name be used, is now 19. From his photos, he appears short and thin with closely cropped hair and glasses. Speaking over the telephone via WhatsApp from Dijon, France, where he is trying to register at a local high school, his high-pitched voice trembles when he talks about that night.

“It was quiet when we started,” he says. He wasn’t feeling anything in the moment, not even fear. “You just have to keep going.”

But then he started receiving messages from De Andrés. “I felt like I had someone beside me to help me to cross this sea,” he says. “I was happy for that. I had no friends on the boat.”

As he steered the boat, Ivan passed his cell phone to another passenger to type messages as they traveled farther from shore. Once out at sea, the waves became heavier. Ivan sent a text message to De Andrés and Hajira. She wrote back, urging him not to go faster — increasing the boat’s speed could cause the bow to fill with water, placing them in greater peril. Nobody should stand up, she warned, as their shoes might break through the vessel’s flimsy plastic floor.

Two hours later, the boat approached the Greek shoreline. Ivan spotted a Greek coast guard ship approaching. De Andrés had called the coast guard via an emergency telephone number.

“I saw them on the horizon,” Ivan says. “They were saying, ‘Just stop the boat and come to our path. Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right.’”

Images — like these provided by Mohamed Hassan Hajira — along with screenshots of GPS locations, text messages, and voice recordings, routinely flow via WhatsApp from migrants to Red Alert as they cross the Aegean Sea.

After Red Alert helped its first boat safely to shore in 2015, the refugees it helped asked Hajira how to join De Andrés’s network. “I would train them and put them to work. After six months, we had 50 people,” Hajira says. “All that happened under Ángeles’s umbrella.”

The genesis of Red Alert coincided with the mass arrival of migrants to European shores and the chaos that came with it, beginning with the loss of 360 people after a migrant ship capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on Oct. 3, 2013. The incident sparked outrage across Europe. Eight days later, another boat sank near Lampedusa, killing 34 people. By 2014, refugees were arriving to Europe in large numbers through what were believed to be safer routes, first over land between Turkey and Greece and then, after the borders were closed, across the eastern Aegean.

By the following year, volunteer groups in places including Lesbos; Idomeni, on the Greek border with Macedonia; Calais, France; and Berlin had already begun to step in to assist new arrivals. Some did so with more efficiency than others, but the role of civilians  became more critical than it had been since the construction of the European Union. Kilian Kleinschmidt, a humanitarian consultant who has worked as an advisor to the German and Austrian governments on refugee issues, says these kinds of on-the-ground responses and groups like Red Alert serve as “an expression of a new reconnect between people and society.”

“Civil society absolutely has a role to play,” he says. “Otherwise [Europe] discovers that it has a real problem. Suddenly, they are not willing to put just 5 euros in a donation box. Suddenly, they can do something themselves.”

Indeed, it is the singular urgency of that civic mission that connected as unlikely a team as a Syrian seaman and a Galician school administrator.

Hajira says Red Alert is not alone — that there are at least seven other WhatsApp groups like theirs run by volunteers covering the eastern Aegean crossings alone.

Other mainstream organizations like Human Rights Watch were also quick to take advantage of the WhatsApp groups to access real-time information.

“WhatsApp and, to a lesser extent, Viber are crucial communication tools for most asylum-seekers,” says Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch. “[They] allow us to obtain information about abuses occurring in places we can’t go, whether it is the forests of Bulgaria, where police regularly beat and rob asylum-seekers, or the horrible closed detention camps in Hungary: We get people’s WhatsApp numbers and can communicate with them directly.”

There are obvious limits to what Red Alert volunteers can achieve without the benefit of institutional support. “[De Andrés] should be encouraged,” says Paul Spiegel, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, in reference to Red Alert’s mission. “But the question is what happens when she is not there. These are piecemeal efforts and very positive things that are happening. But they need to be more structured to ensure that this is not a one-off. They need to be formalized in some way [so] that they can remain functional without diminishing the same spirit that we see in volunteers.”

There’s no question that volunteers are an essential part of migrant rescue efforts. “But there is an issue of quality control,” Kleinschmidt says. “There is always a high potential for amateurism and naiveté.”

But the NGOs doing this work face the same potential pitfalls. To be sure, De Andrés and her crew do not have the capacity of a large nonprofit. Nor do they aspire to. But they do point to an alternative method by which decentralized networks can provide direct help to those who need it.

She is “not an angel,” says Ivan of De Andrés. “But she is very kind. She directed me to a safe passage.”

When De Andrés was a child, her father ran cafes with gambling machines in Ourense, the third-largest city in Galicia. It is a stop on one of the dozens of routes of the Camino de Santiago, where religious pilgrims make their way along the road to Santiago de Compostela to visit the shrine of St. James the Greater. The Camino de Santiago is supported by good Samaritans offering a meal or a place for strangers to stay.

This hometown tradition has always resonated deeply with De Andrés. She came to understand the service as something that could just as easily be reproduced online for asylum-seekers. “We copied the Camino de Santiago,” she says. “We copied the route of pilgrims.”

When she talks about her life outside of Red Alert, she calls it “boring.” It wasn’t until she began to manage a network of online volunteers that extends thousands of miles — from Sweden to Greece to Syria and Iraq — all orchestrated from her anchored position on her sofa that she found her true purpose.

De Andrés views the WhatsApp network she cobbled together as a counterweight to terrorist networks like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. “If they can use the internet to recruit people in various cities for evil, then we need to be able to recruit people to do good in any part of the world.”

The effort to create connections between refugees and those able to assist them, she believes, is part of a Manichaean struggle between darkness and light.

“Evil is strong,” she says. “But good people are stronger. We are stronger because we are many.”

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of  FP magazine.

Gregory Beals is a journalist and former aid worker who has spent the last decade covering conflict zones. (@gregbeals)