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She wants to raise Rs 20 crore to save refugees

By Ritu Jha
Last updated on: September 11, 2015 16:52 IST
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Moved by three-year-old Aylan Kurdi's death, Vidhya Ramalingam has kickstarted a crowd-funding campaign to buy a rescue ship to save refugees who make the dangerous Mediterranean journey.

Ritu Jha reports from California for

Vidhya Ramalingam never wanted to be a doctor or an engineer like her parents. Instead, the New Jersey resident wanted to study a subject that surprised her folks -- migration.

She went to Cornell, earned a bachelor's degree in migration studies and then moved to Britain to do a master's in the subject from Oxford. Since graduating a few years ago, she has been working on problems related to migration.

Last week, moved by the crisis in the Mediterranean -- particularly by the death of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian-Kurdish toddler whose body washed up on Turkey's Bodrum beach -- she resolved to reach out to these refugees. And that's how the People's Armada was established.

In an e-mail interview from London, where she is currently based, Ramalingam, seen, below, said, "I launched People's Armada last week, from London, with a small group of other young people, to see whether we could get the public to show leadership on this issue. And prevent the kind of deaths we saw last week, (like) of Aylan."

"It's a crowd-funding campaign," she added. Registered on Indiegogo, the largest global site for fundraisers, anyone, from any community in the world, can contribute, be it $3 or $3,000 (approximately Rs 198 to Rs 198,000).

What is MOAS?

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station utilises a 136-feet ship, the Phoenix, to mount rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Last year, 3,000 were rescued during the 60 days when most refugee crossings happen, according to information on the MOAS Web site and Wikipedia.

On coming across, or more crucially locating, a vessel -- be it a dinghy or a small boat in distress -- MOAS comes to the rescue, taking the migrants on board and providing lifejackets, water, food and medical care.

MOAS' operation runs out of Malta and monitors the main migrant routes between North Africa, West Asia and Europe. Founded and financed by a Maltese business family, it was established in 2013, as a humanitarian solution after 400 migrants drowned near Lampedusa, Italy.

The proceeds will go to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which operates one of three boats in the ;Mediterranean with Medecins Sans Frontieres, the independent medical humanitarian organisation. Ramalingam's goal is to raise $3 million (approximately Rs 20 crore/Rs 200 million) by September 14. In six days she has raised $30,000 (Rs 1,980,000).

"We partnered directly with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station. (It mounts rescue missions in the Mediterranean). They would need $3 million to buy another boat for immediate action. One boat rescues 11,000 people in a year. So we thought -- why not? Let's see if the public can make this happen, and save thousands of lives," explained Ramalingam.

With hundreds of thousands of refugees making this dangerous journey across the sometimes choppy Mediterranean, there have been 2,500 deaths this year. Ramalingam felt there is a lot to be done, especially since most governments have been dragging their feet on the crisis.

This is a historically opportune moment, she believes, when communities can take the lead and save lives.

Isn't raising $3 million by mid-month an enormous challenge? "We have seen support outpouring from across communities in our first few days, including the Indian community. But we need much more to reach our target by September 14. This is a moment where the Indian community can take real leadership to ensure more lives are saved."

She also plans an online rally, both in Britain and the United States, for donation. "Rather than drive to a rally, we'd rather have people spend that gas money to help us buy another rescue boat and save more lives. The beauty of crowd-funding is that the cost of a cup of coffee can go a long way if thousands put it in."

"There are three million Indian Americans. If every Indian American contributed $1 (Rs 66.30), we'd reach our target instantly. And 11,000 lives could be saved."

Why did Ramalingam develop a special interest in migration studies in the first place? "I wanted to study how governments and communities cope with migration and demographic change, and what makes them welcoming or less welcoming to new communities. Now, this has become my life in many ways."

"My parents came to the US, as migrants, from India decades ago, and we cannot sit back and watch those risking their lives to migrate -- in more dire circumstances -- die making the journey," said Ramalingam, a senior research fellow on migration and communities at the Institute for Public Policy Research, London, and also a research associate at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Oxford University.

She is being aided in her efforts by her parents and her sister, who are spearheading fundraising in the US and sharing details of this effort on their social networks. Nearly 500 people have contributed in the US among the desis.

Said A Ramalingam, Vidhya's dad and a chemical engineer who came to the US in the 1970s, "People's Armada is her initiative, but after she sent me the link of the site, I started forwarding it to my friends to take a look and make some contribution."

Medecins Sans Frontieres rescued 1,658 people, including 199 children, in a single day last week. With the seas becoming more dangerous, the urgency of the situation is set to increase.

"Ministers from 28 European States are meeting on September 14 in Brussels to discuss the crisis," said Ramalingam. "We just can't wait until then. People are dying every day. In the time it'll take our leaders to book their flights, the public can crowd-fund a whole search and rescue mission."

IMAGE: A Syrian refugee carries two children after arriving on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos. Greece is struggling to cope with the hundreds of refugees fleeing the war in Syria making the short crossing every day from Turkey to Greece's eastern islands, including Kos, Lesbos, Samos and Agathonisi. Photograph: Dimitris Michalakis/Reuters


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