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CATANIA, Italy – Nawal Soufi tries to never miss a call. It very well could be a Syrian refugee on a crowded boat sinking into the Mediterranean Sea.
Every day, hundreds of Syrians board rickety vessels, usually in Libya, hoping to make it to Italy. Some 1,800 migrants have died along the route so far this year. As Europe scrambles to respond to the humanitarian crisis, Soufi posts updates to her Facebook page and often receives distress calls before the Italian Coast Guard does.
Nicknamed the "Angel of the Syrians," the 26-year-old dedicates her days to offering refugees guidance in Arabic, collecting clothes for them in a garage in the Sicilian port city of Catania and helping them get cell phone SIM cards that work in Europe. She was a constant whir of motion the two days we spent with her: on the phone, hugging babies, lecturing Syrian arrivals about the dangers of traffickers and singing Syrian songs as she saw them off at the train station.
But her work is more controversial than simple charity. That's because very few of these refugees want to stay in Italy. Soufi helps them get out.
More than 170,000 Syrian refugees landed in Italy in 2014, but almost all of them hoped to continue north to countries with sturdier social safety nets and better job prospects or where their relatives live. That’s trickier than it sounds.
In Europe's barely functioning migrant management system, wherever you get fingerprinted is where your case gets processed. And if you're processed in Italy, your asylum request in Austria, Sweden or any other EU country could be denied. Soufi says this can leave migrants stranded in Italy, away from family and often unable to find a job.
The EU migrant system, she says, causes more harm than good.
"When these people give their fingerprints, at a certain stage, the doors of the reception centers are opened to let them out, and they are free to go," Nawal said. "Where? Toward nothingness."
Many refugees find their way to Milan where they hop a train to their next destination. Last summer, 2,000 refugees passed through the Milan train station each weekend. Soufi tells migrants the true costs of train tickets and that they don't need to cough up 400 euros to a smuggler to get a ride to Milan.
It is not easy. Many times, you do not sleep for days. However, I guess that my life, compared to the life of thousands of people, is simply nothing.
"What I am doing now is helping these people to learn about their rights and duties and protect them from all kind of abuses," she said, "even if these abuses are committed by public institutions."
That help got her in trouble once when the Coast Guard reported her to the police for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. But Soufi says that charge was dropped when she proved that her work was entirely not for profit.
"They understood that I am a real activist in the field of human rights, not a trafficker," she said.
Born in Morocco and raised in Catania, Soufi started advocating for migrants and homeless people in Sicily at age 14. With hundreds of asylum seekers now arriving on the shores of her city each day, she considers it a historic time to be doing this work. Soufi says the Coast Guard often doesn't have an Arabic interpreter available, which makes it hard for them to calm panicked refugees, determine ships' locations and proceed with rescue attempts.
"When they call me, I do speak their language," she said. "In short, I raise my voice and say, 'Stop. Give me your coordinates and nothing else. All the rest is unimportant.'”
Being the sole point of contact for hundreds of migrants at a time can be stressful. One day last August, Soufi says 17 migrant boats were out at sea at the same time, and eight of them were calling her cell phone – each 20 or 30 times – until they were all saved.
"It is not easy. Many times, you do not sleep for days," she said. "However, I guess that my life, compared to the life of thousands of people, is simply nothing."
Soufi is furious with smugglers in Libya and Egypt who take migrants' money and pile them onto ships bound for Europe. She believes they're "speculating on the lives of human beings."
But she also thinks Europe's attitude – focused on stopping the flood of migrants – is neglecting human lives too. She says Italy can't cope with the sheer number of asylum-seekers on its shores and should be advocating to amend the Dublin Agreement so that other countries can share the burden of accepting migrants. Then, she says the continent should open up a humanitarian corridor, allowing migrants to travel to their ultimate destination without breaking the law.
Until that happens, Soufi will be by her phone and updating Facebook, helping migrants make their odyssey safely and without exploitation – after days at sea and years of war.
"It is a huge responsibility from a human point of view," she said. "It is something I have to keep doing. I cannot stop it."