www.cnn.com | September 3, 2016
Palermo, Italy (CNN)The migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe are often numbers until you meet them. Then they become people, with names and faces and stories of hardship, tragedy and hope. It all came together for me when in Italy I met Merhawit Tesfamariam, a 26-year-old Eritrean who gave birth to twins on board a rickety boat off the Libyan coast in late August.
Her twins, Hiyap (1.6 kilos) and Evenezer (1.3 kilos), lie in incubators on the second floor of Palermo’s Cervello Hospital.
They grow more animated when Merhawit visits them, caressing them gently. They raise their legs, move their arms. Smiling with delight, she kisses her fingers and then caresses them some more.
I spent the day with Merhawit in the hospital, trying to learn her story. She speaks only Tigrina, the language of her native Eritrea. We share a few words in common, in English and Arabic, but it was a struggle to glean the details of her story.
Through an Eritrean colleague at CNN in London, I learned how she managed to get to Italy.
But first, let’s return to the numbers.
So far this year, 3,165 migrants and refugees have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, often in overcrowded boats and rafts. More than 110,000 others have arrived in Italy, where another 145,000 wait in reception centers for their statuses to be decided upon.
Meanwhile, more than 275,000 people are waiting in Libya to attempt the perilous journey, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Merhawit was one of them. Like so many other Eritreans, she fled her country to escape the open-ended mandatory military service that made life in the small East African country unbearable. She served in the military for three years working as a clerk. Fed up, she deserted, but was caught and sentenced to five months in prison. After her release last year, she and her husband paid human traffickers 50,000 nakfa, about $3,300, to be smuggled across the border into Sudan.