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Pia Klemp Is the Hero the World Desperately Needs Right Now

It is more important than ever to find meaningful ways to celebrate people like her who refuse to be intimidated by the rise of xenophobia across the Western world

Pia Klemp

"I'm part of a generation that grew up asking their grandparents, 'What did you do against it?'" German ship captain and human rights activist Pia Klemp says in a recent TED talk. (Photo: Screenshot / YouTube)

It is rare nowadays to read about a person in the deluge of bad news flooding our screens 24/7 and immediately think: Now this is a true hero. But when it comes to Pia Klemp, the description is not only entirely appropriate but entirely necessary. Appropriate because the German ship captain and human rights activist, at the ripe age of 36, has personally saved thousands of migrants from drowning as they attempt the deadly journey across the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. Necessary because at this very moment, Klemp faces 20 years in prison in Italy for the trumped-up charge of "aiding and abetting illegal immigration."

Klemp was with her colleagues from the nongovernmental organization-run ship Iuventa, which was seized by Italian authorities in 2017 as it entered the port of Lampedusa with rescued migrants aboard. Prior to its seizure, the ship, previously used for fishing, is estimated to have saved about 14,000 people.

The global refugee crisis has reached a frightening peak, with the highest number of displaced persons ever recorded in history. And yet Western nations, many of which have had a hand in destabilizing the Middle East and other regions where refugees hail from, often respond with fear and disdain for the lives of those desperate enough to risk everything and leave all they've known in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their loved ones.

Due to its geographic location, Italy is one of the places migrants initially head for in order to seek asylum in the European Union. But the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment there has propelled such racist leaders as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini into power. Salvini, whom the German journal Der Weisse describes as a nationalist who "has been instrumental in barring rescue ships from Italy," has virulently attacked Klemp and her fellow activists, and this week barred ships carrying refugees from entering Italian ports. As a Quartz article explains, the Italian-led crackdown on rescue ships, including those working with the NGO Sea-Watch, has garnered support from E.U. officials.

The E.U. has recently ended search-and-rescue missions in the [Mediterranean], in part due to pressure from Italy. The E.U. operation [Sea-Watch], launched in 2015 at the peak of the migrant crisis, saved tens of thousands of migrants. The E.U. has outsourced its rescue work to the Libyan coast guard, which activists and researchers say is unprepared, and often unwilling, to save migrants.

[Recently] Italy intensified the pressure on NGOs, passing a decree that allows it to apply fines of up to €50,000 ($56,000) on humanitarian organizations caught operating in Italian waters or trying to reach Italian ports. Italy also threatened to use the new rule to fine Sea-Watch.

Klemp and the rest of the Iuventa 10, as she and her fellow shipmates are known, face an expensive, uphill legal battle, which she calls a "show trial." An online petition started by a nurse aboard the Iuventa calling for Italian authorities to drop charges against the activists has received nearly 400,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

When asked by The Intercept how Klemp deals with the grief implicit in her work, her response highlighted her selflessness and impassioned adherence to her values.

It's not very much on my mind. [Tragedies] happen, unfortunately, regardless of us being there and seeing it or not.

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What I really wonder is how [the people we rescue] deal with their grief and the torture, the hardship, and the denial of any kindness and human decency from anyone else—how they deal with that. A lot of these people have been on the run for years and years and years. They've had to go through Africa, see a lot of their family members die in the desert, and they end up in these detention camps in Libya where the situation is absolutely horrendous. There's almost no words for the situation, for the status of the people in these camps, when they're at gunpoint forced onto these wrecked boats, which are completely unseaworthy. Like, the moment you set foot on them, they're drifting around the Mediterranean Sea, no water, no navigation equipment. Not even enough fuel on board to get anywhere. They're completely left alone, then they have to fear being intercepted by the Libyan militias, then they are denied a port of safety in Europe.

I think the much more interesting question is, how do all these people that have to endure real hardship deal with it? Because they're so far away from any point of being able to rest and to breathe. Me, I can always go back to my perfect little privileged world in Germany if I choose to. And these people have nothing and nowhere to go. And we don't want to give it to them.

In a recent TED talk titled "Why I fight for solidarity," the rescue-ship captain, who admitted to feeling uncomfortable on land and on stage, gave a poignant speech about the urgency of the refugee crisis and the horrors so many people face, both on land and at sea, on their journeys.

In one of the most powerful parts of her 13-minute speech, Klemp points out that the legal charges she faces would never have been levied at her had she saved "E.U. passport-holders." The racist implications of such a contradiction are crystal clear and all the more painful to think of as Klemp tells the story of the 2-year-old child who died aboard one of her rescue vessels as the ship was denied entry in port after port. Klemp also points to a previous time in recent history in which a lack of solidarity and inaction on the part of many of her ancestors led to one of the most horrific episodes in Western history.

"I'm part of a generation that grew up asking their grandparents, 'What did you do against it?'" the Bonn-born activist says. "And I've come to realize that I'm part of a generation that will have to answer the very same question to their grandchildren."

Making an impassioned call for solidarity with refugees and those who risk their lives and freedom to save their fellow humans from certain death, Klemp also makes a bold promise: "We will not be intimidated, and we will continue to fight for a world in which we want to live in, for a world in which everyone is given the chance to live in."

Despite persecution, Klemp has not backed down one bit in her courageous mission. She has a new rescue ship, Sea-Watch 3, which was also seized for some months by Maltese authorities in 2018. In August, Klemp made headlines for rejecting the city of Paris' Grand Vermeil Medal for bravery, highlighting the rancid hypocrisy behind the French award. "At the same time your police is stealing blankets from people that you force to live on the streets, while you raid protests and criminalize people that are standing up for rights of migrants and asylum seekers." Addressing Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Klemp writes, "You want to give me a medal for actions that you fight in your own ramparts. I am sure you won't be surprised that I decline the medaille Grand Vermeil." Her full scathing Facebook post can be read below:

While Klemp rejects the term "hero" when used by duplicitous authorities, it is more important than ever to find meaningful ways to celebrate people like her who refuse to be intimidated by the rise of xenophobia across the Western world and the criminalization not just of solidarity, as she points out, but of the saving of lives. Perhaps it would be more appropriate, however, to honor Klemp for her bravery alongside the refugees who themselves face unimaginable obstacles with immense valor as our Truthdiggers of the Month. We hope she, her fellow activists and the refugees they help consider this designation a symbol of Truthdig's solidarity with Klemp's efforts to "cast all medals into spearheads of revolution" as she continues her fearless activism and sets an example for us all.

Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Natasha Hakimi Zapata holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a B.A. in Spanish and a B.A. in English with a creative writing concentration from the University of California, Los Angeles. In college she received scholarships from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hispanic Heritage Foundation, the Smithsonian Latino Center and the UCLA Alumni Association.

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