The Current

How this journalist saves Eritrean refugees with her cellphone

For Eritreans fleeing their country, knowing Meron Estefanos's phone number can be their only chance of survival.
Activist and journalist Meron Estefanos shows a kidnapping victim's back wounds after he was held for ransom and tortured. (Meron Estefanos)

Read Story Transcript

When Meron Estefanos's cellphone rings, she has no choice but to pick up — and her phone never stops ringing.

On the other end of the phone are desperate cries for help from fellow Eritreans who have fled the repressive country in northeast Africa and are now kidnapped, tortured or held hostage by traffickers in the Sinai peninsula.

I'm responsible whether they live or die.- Meron Estefanos, journalist and refugee advocate

For many, she is their only hope to survive. 

"The first phone call that I received,  I actually waited almost 78 hours until they received help which was disturbing. I could not eat," Estefanos tells The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"I could not do anything because they're telling me, 425 people are telling me, I'm responsible whether they live or die. So it was very frustrating."

In this case, she says she used social media and other journalists to put pressure on authorities to save them, and eventually, the migrants were rescued.

Migrants, most from Eritrea, jump into the water from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, Aug. 29, 2016.

Estefanos left Eritrea 30 years ago for Sweden, where she's a journalist and refugee advocate. Since 2008, she's been saving lives by fielding calls and it's this work that has prompted a weekly radio program she hosts from her kitchen studio called Voices of Eritrean Refugees.

I did not want to take that kind of responsibility but they were giving it to me. They were saying, you know, after God we're depending on you.- Meron Estefanos

Smugglers call too

Estefanos shares her number on air for people to contact her when they are in an emergency. 

But she says it's not just terrified families and people kidnapped who call; smugglers and torturers also contact Estefanos. 

"You just have to pretend to be kind to them because anything you say they're going to take it out on the hostages. So, you know, we suck up to them which hurts because these are people that are kidnapping people, selling people, auctioning people, torturing people, raping people and holding them for ransom. So it's a very difficult thing."

The hardest calls to answer: 00888

Estefanos says the hardest calls for her to take are the distress calls because they are urgent, unlike a hostage-taking.

If I did not answer my phone whenever they called, it felt like they will die, and it will be my fault.- Meron Estefanos

When a call with a 00888 number comes in, that means someone is calling from a satellite mobile on the Mediterranean, most likely from a sinking boat of migrants.

"The first phone call that I received from a boat in distress, I don't know I think it was in 2010, and 425 people lost at sea. They do not have enough fuel or water or food, screaming saying, you know, that their lives depend on my hands," she says.

"I did not want to take that kind of responsibility, but they were giving it to me. They were saying, you know, after God we're depending on you."

How many calls Estefanos gets depends on the day. She's never counted but estimates she receives around 100 calls a day, or if a boat is in distress, and family members are also reaching out, she can get 500 calls a day.

Eritrean migrants sit at the Wadi Sherifay camp, May 2, 2017, after being caught by Sudanese border security illegally crossing the Eritrea-Sudan border in the eastern Kassala state. (AFP/Getty Images)

A changed life

The impact of her advocacy — of all the voices behind each call — has forever changed Estefanos.

"I became another person. I used to take my life for granted. I used to complain about small things," she says.

But listening to the agony and cries of people in need of help sinks deep, according to Estefanos.

"At the beginning if I did not answer my phone whenever they called, it felt like they will die, and it will be my fault, or when I was eating, I used to feel guilty," she explains.

As a changed person, it also meant Estefanos broke off friendships because their issues were trivial compared to the people she spoke to who were being tortured or dying.

"You know I could interview one hostage and then five minutes later another hostage will call me just to tell me, 'Oh the person that you just interviewed just died on us,'" she says.

"It disturbs you. It's not like a normal job where as a journalist you interview and you're done."

The Current requested a response from the consulate general of Eritrea in Toronto. We have not heard back.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar.