As Christmas approaches, families around the world will make the final preparations for the festive period – but for two abandoned seafarers it’s just another reminder of what they’re missing at home. It’s 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).
Earlier this year Sailors Society’s Crisis Response Network took on its 100th crisis case since its launch in 2015, with piracy, non-payment of wages, death at sea and abandonment accounting for most of the cases supported. 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.” 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.
“As well as practical support, such as groceries, we ask about their well-being and how their family are doing back home,” Jessie said. Sailors’ Society is working with fellow missional charities in the area to pay for food supplies through welfare grants, showing the men that they are not forgotten. It was Asmael’s birthday in October, another key milestone spent away from his loved ones.
Jessie said, “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.” The chaplains have also been supporting them with medical needs. Jessie said, “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.”
Stuart added, “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 per cent of the goods we rely upon on a daily basis and are the lifeblood of the industry and our global economy, it’s crucial we are there to support them when the crisis hits.” 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. Stuart said, “When seafarers like Mohammed face times of great crisis, our team is there to provide practical and emotional support.”
Abandonment issues are complex and can take months – if not years – to settle. Boet explained, “Once the ship is abandoned, it can be sold, but these things take time and that can have a huge affect on the seafarers who are left to wait for their outstanding wages.” Despite their ordeal, the men remain resilient.
Boet said, “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.” Boet is hopeful the men will return home soon.
He’s seen too many cases of seafarers’ mental health being affected by abandonment. Boet said, “Separation and isolation constantly present new issues of crisis for abandoned seafarers. When you add to that family illness back home, injury, food shortages – the pressure upon them intensifies. “Helping them to deal with their feelings of anger, fear and hopelessness is vital and being there to help them is a privilege.”