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Migrant twins born at sea
02:19 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

26-year-old Merhawit Tesfamariam gave birth to twins on a rickety boat

They are recovering at an Italian hospital

She tells of her escape from Eritrea and hopes for the future

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.

Merhawit Tesfamariam with her twins in the hospital in Palermo.

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.

Desertion and illegally leaving the country come at a cost, she explained to me. She left behind her parents, two sisters and a brother, who were visited by the police. They threatened her family with imprisonment but were satisfied with a bribe, she said.

Merhawit and her husband managed to scrape together enough funds, around $5,000, for her to continue the journey to Libya, but not enough for him to join. He stayed behind in Khartoum, and once more with the dubious assistance of human traffickers, the expectant mother went to Tripoli. There, Merhawit recounted, she stayed for five months in a walled compound, sleeping on the floor of what sounded, according to her description, like a warehouse.

“The water was dirty, dirty,” she told me. The only food she and other migrants and refugees there were ever given was pasta.

“Did you see a doctor while in Libya?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “No doctor, no medicine.”

Eventually, she and the others were herded onto a bus and driven to the Libyan coast, where they boarded a boat. They had no food or water.

Despite being eight months pregnant, Merhawit assured me she felt no discomfort. But after just two days at sea, labor set in. She was in pain, and her cries drove many of the passengers in the flimsy vessel as far away as they could get.

“I was in such pain I wasn’t embarrassed by what was happening to me,” she said. Merhawit recalls that women on the boat were supportive through her agony, and helped her deliver her twin boys.

After they were born, however, she was gripped by fear that the infants would die as they drifted aimlessly on the Mediterranean. “I was worried the twins wouldn’t survive, that we wouldn’t be rescued.”

Rescue did arrive, however, when their boat was spotted by the crew of Dignity 1, a vessel operated by Medecins Sans Frontiere (Doctors Without Borders). Merwahit and the twins were soon transferred to the Italian Navy, which helicoptered them to Palermo. The infants were suffering from malnutrition, dehydration and hypothermia, according to doctors at the hospital in Palermo. Merhawit was also suffering from anemia.

Their rescue, and rapid recovery since then is nothing short of miraculous, doctors say. “If they had been on the boat much longer,” Dr. Giorgio Sulliotti said, “they would have suffered much more than they did.”

Merhawit was “very lucky,” added Dr. Antonio Perino. “It was a premature delivery of twins in a crowded boat in the Mediterranean. Any complication could have been grave, with the risk of death for both the mother and the twins.”

“It’s the first time I’ve seen a premature delivery with such a rapid recovery by both the mother and the babies,” said Perino.

Merhawit seems happy and relieved in the hospital in Palermo. She is being pampered by the staff who, despite the language barriers, dote over her and the twins.

Still, her story is far from over. Once the twins are healthy enough, she will be released from the hospital to a reception center. There she will have to either apply for asylum or seek refuge in another country. She told me she wants to be reunited with her husband as soon as possible – how, she doesn’t know. Then she would like to move to the United Kingdom or, if she can, to the United States, where she says she has relatives.

“And Italy?” I asked. She crinkles her nose and shakes her head. She knows, as do so many others, that there is little opportunity in the country for work. I let her use my phone. She called and spoke with her husband in Sudan and a relative in Germany. She tried to phone her family in Eritrea, but wasn’t able to reach them.

For now, her family’s future remains in limbo.

Like the many other migrants and refugees, she’s not a number. She’s a person who left her family and native land because life there became unbearable. Where she, Hiyap and Evenezer will go and eventually settle remains an open question. So it is for Merhwait, and for thousands like her.