by Kevin Walker and Susan Huppert, NAMMA
Seafarers’ ministries all over the world have been deeply involved in caring and advocating for seafarers caught in the COVID-19 Crew Change Crisis, from which many touching stories have emerged in the last year. Few stories, however, compare in scale to the seafarers of Kiribati (pronounced ‘kee-ree-bahss’, adjective ‘I-Kiribati’), who have been stranded around the world in the hundreds. Predominantly employed by German shipping companies, these seafarers have been concentrated in a few major ports – first Hamburg, then also Svendborg, Brisbane, Busan, Jakarta, and Fiji – while the government of Kiribati and international partners work on their unique logistical challenges of public health and border management.
In this time of deep duress, uncertainty, and poverty for the seafarers, an important task of caring for them has been sharing and lightening their burdens: listening to them, entertaining and encouraging them, and, when it is asked for, praying with them. In the ports where they are found, seafarers’ ministries have taken up this task, often going far beyond business as usual to do so. They have coordinated clothing deliveries, housing, church services, and outings; they have striven to form personal connections with large groups of seafarers, sometimes hundreds; they have reached out to their own governments and governments across the world. As members of the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA), the fellowship and network of such ministries, they have also done this work in their own ports in coordination with each other and other maritime partners.
This is one part of a much larger story of the whole international maritime community rallying to help its I-Kiribati members. The ITF, ICS, ILO, and IMO have all advocated for their rights and worked with the government of Kiribati to help find solutions. South Pacific Marine Services (SPMS), the group of shipping companies that employ them, have gone far beyond their contractual obligations in paying for food and lodging. The ITF Seafarers’ Trust and The Seafarers’ Charity have provided further emergency funds to sustain them. More heroic still has been the work of the seafarers themselves and their families, both in their perseverance and in their own care for each other.
Hamburg, where the majority of the I-Kiribati seafarers were staying at first, has not one ministry to seafarers but four, working independently: three Deutsche Seemannsmissions and the Catholic Stella Maris. When Matthias Ristau, of the Evangelical Church of Northern Germany’s Seemannsmission, heard about the situation in his port in the fall of 2020, he consulted with these colleagues about working together on what was already clearly a much larger project than any of them were used to.
“I think in the beginning Matthias got us together – the three different Deutsche Seemannsmissions in Hamburg and Stella Maris – to see what we could each bring to the situation”, says Monica Döring of Stella Maris Hamburg. “We realized even then that it was going to be a very big thing, and that none of us would be able to do it on our own.”
Food and shelter were naturally the first priorities: the Altona Seemannsmission had lodging in which some of the seafarers could stay, but as more arrived, extra accommodation and food had to be found in a nearby youth hostel. Beyond those basic human needs, the ministries would check in on the seafarers and provide other forms of care. Much of this care was shared between the ministries. “We went to the youth hostel to give mental support, pastoral care, church services, and very practical things like warm clothes and Wi-Fi”, says Ristau. “We couldn’t put it in every room, but we had very good routers in the corridors so they could talk to their families at night.”
Things were very chaotic in these early days, as everyone scrambled to figure out who would do what and what still needed doing. Even then, though, Döring remembers that they didn’t know just what they were in for: “Reality overtook us a little bit. I think, without any of us talking about it, we all had assumed that by Christmas they would have been home or that the situation would have changed. Well, it didn’t. But then in the next month we really got organized. We got to see where each of our strengths were and got better at sharing the tasks.
“Some of the I-Kiribati seafarers were Catholic, so Matthias and I organized Catholic and Protestant church services for every other week. But what we contributed depended not only on which organization we were from, but more on who each of us was and what we did. Matthias did a lot of public relations and outreach, Jörn [Hille] from the Seemannsmission handled the finances, I’m good at meetings so I helped organize those, we had some younger volunteers who knew the seafarers from quarantine; and another volunteer who organized recreational activities. And by the way the people from the youth hostel were great, and really, really helpful.”
Döring also expressed appreciation for the great variety of people involved pastorally. “In welfare visits, too, we all had different personalities and different approaches to talking with people. I’m a little bit older, and have children of my own, so some seafarers who were fathers appreciated talking with me about that. Meanwhile there were younger people who had really good relationships with the younger seafarers.”
Later on, most of the seafarers were relocated to Fiji. There are currently only 20 seafarers in Hamburg, all housed in the Altona Seemannsmission, which along with Ristau has taken over the larger part of caring for them, although other ministries are still involved as needed. “We are still in contact with them,” says Döring. “The other day the volunteer organizing recreation borrowed bicycles from us, but mostly now we just provide for their religious needs as a Catholic organization: shuttling them to church, confession, things like that.”
The first group of I-Kiribati seafarers to be repatriated to Kiribati were housed in Fiji, as are 150 of the roughly 250 still abroad. There they pass their days in its Melanesia Hotel, staying safe and waiting to complete their journey. “After Fiji started closing its borders, me and many others were stranded in Hamburg since the beginning of December last year”, says Capt. Tekemau Kiraua, a de facto spokesman for the group. “Then they got an agreement with the Fijian government to enter, so we entered Fiji on March 18 and that was supposed to be our last stop. But when we heard the Delta Variant had been discovered here, we locked ourselves down at the Melanesian Hotel – that was April 18. It was very sad for the hotel staff too, because they have not been able to go back to their families either.”
While there is no ministry to seafarers in Fiji itself, Ristau is still doing his best to care for them all the way from Hamburg. “I and others are in regular contact with a few of them, including Capt. Tekemau”, he says. “When we heard they were running out of money, we contacted the ITF Trust and the Seafarers’ Charity, and every ten or so days we send money for SIM cards and other basic needs. Capt. Tekemau also told us their families are also running out of money, so we’ve contacted the Trust about that too.” Ristau has also been in some contact with the seafarers being housed in Jakarta and their agent, though this has been more limited as the ministry connections are fewer.
As a captain of his own crew when he was on a vessel, many of Kiraua’s compatriots now come to him with their burdens. “My crewmembers’ mental health is out of control. Lots of them come to me asking me when we will be coming back, or about their problems supporting their families. They’ll ask me, ‘Captain, I have a problem, I have no more money to support my family. Can you find me another agency or other work for me to support them?’”
Like a good maritime minister, Capt. Tekemau looks for ways to lift their spirits even in the face of great discouragement. “We play games to entertain them. I use some of the money we get from the ITF Trust, maybe $200 Fijian a week, as $5 prizes to encourage people to play sports and forget about what is going on. But some of the guys still want to stay in their rooms.”
He also expresses appreciation for the work ICMA maritime ministries are doing for I-Kiribati seafarers. “Our communication with the German Seamen’s Mission has been very good, and it has been very helpful that they have been with us all the time and supporting us in these hard times we are going through. In Brisbane, the Mission is doing a lot of activities to make things fun for the seafarers there. That is very good, and that is what the German Seamen’s Mission did for us too.”
But in the meantime, things are still difficult for Kiraua and his fellow I-Kiribati seafarers. Like so many migrant workers, their primary motivation is not their own welfare, but that of their families, and Kiraua worries about their future: “Just without financial income it would still be possible to survive. But our wives cannot go fishing, because they are staying with our kids. That is our biggest concern: we are worried about providing for our families.”
Twelve I-Kiribati seafarers continue to wait in Busan, South Korea, where they have been since April. They are served there by the Anglican Mission to Seafarers in Busan and its chaplain, Monica Kyongok Park.
Park has been working with Mission to Seafarers since 1993, and was appointed chaplain in 2018. In addition to her duties serving other seafarers in the port, she meets with the I-Kiribati seafarers three times a week to check on their status. She has also met online with Matthias Ristau, comparing notes and getting news from Germany about SPMS.
Whenever the seafarers make a request, Park and the Mission’s staff do their best to meet the need. They help with buying medicines at the pharmacy and purchasing items through the internet, and are also working on access to vaccines. Park has also reached out to three I-Kiribati seafarers in Incheon, on the opposite coast of South Korea, to offer the Mission’s services and let them know that support for them is also available if they desire.
“I-Kiribati seafarers are very kind and humble and do not complain,” says Park. They seem satisfied with their accommodation and meals, but she worries about what it really means when they report that everything is ‘okay’. The I-Kiribati seafarers remaining there are receiving their basic monthly pay, accommodations and meals through their shipping company. Although much less than when they were working, it does help them to financially support their families.
Even with quite a serious situation of COVID-19 in Busan, which is dominated by the Delta Variant, the seafarers are free to go out, albeit with strict health and safety measures. Public gathering is limited to four people with social distance, two people after 6 PM, and everything closes at 9 PM. The seafarers try to keep themselves busy, taking long walks, fishing, going to mountain parks, shopping, and watching movies. The Mission has supplied more than 570 KF-94 masks since July to protect them on these outings.
The Mission also transports seafarers from their hotel to the seafarers’ center, where table tennis, billiards and a dartboard are available. Games like Jenga and jigsaw puzzles are also provided for the crew. The Mission also searches for other activities to help the I-Kiribati seafarers pass the time in the evenings after closures. The center also provides religious services, including an English Sunday service twice a month.
For the I-Kiribati seafarers in Busan, as with their colleagues around the world, contact with family is the primary concern. They are able to use the free hotel Wi-Fi to contact their homes frequently, and the Mission helps them transfer money back home. Though there is nothing the seafarers or their families can do to speed the process of their return, they report that their families are waiting for them.
Ross Nicholls, chair of the Anglican Mission to Seafarers in Brisbane, was caught off guard when he first heard there were stranded I-Kiribati seafarers in his port. “One day someone in Australia said to me, ‘Oh, I think there are twelve or so seafarers stuck in a hotel here’. I asked for how long, and they said, ‘I can’t remember’!
As a former marine pilot of 15 years, Nicholls knows the maritime world, and the challenges of serving it, well. “I understand how that comment could happen, because from a public health perspective it’s an ongoing task of bodies in, quarantine, bodies out. But for us, taking care of those seafarers is what we do, and if they are stuck all alone in a hotel they need support. So now whenever new seafarers arrive, the government has gotten a lot better about keeping us informed.”
Currently, the Brisbane Mission is caring for 35 I-Kiribati seafarers, and Nicholls expects more. “The first ones arrived in May, and the number is growing as more vessels with crewmembers from Kiribati come by Australia. Word has gotten around that there are problems with repatriation, so these ships are repatriating their Kiribati seafarers, and that is being centralized here in Brisbane.”
Nicholls is proud of the care the Brisbane Mission is able to extend to seafarers in need. “Having them centralized to Brisbane is a positive for us, because we know we can care for them and we have welfare services on site.” The Mission to Seafarers does everything it can to keep the I-Kiribati seafarers engaged and comfortable. “At the centre we have a pool table, table tennis, and an outdoor area with birds and trees. And obviously connections with home are key, so we’re providing them with Wi-Fi and phone cards to help them with that.
“In terms of outings, we’ve taken them to the park, the beach, and up into the mountains. Sometimes it actually gets a bit overwhelming, though, with people coming and saying ‘We want to take the seafarers here, we want to take them there’. A lot of the time they just want to go home and to be in a space they’re comfortable with.”
Beyond what his mission can do for them, however, Nicholls seems most taken with what the I-Kiribati seafarers are doing for themselves: “They are such a great bunch of guys, typical islanders. They sing and dance every time they come out, and we have space and stereos and guitars for them to play their traditional music. When they are playing their music at the centre they really lose themselves in the moment, playing and singing like they were under a palm tree back at home.”
The Mission also makes itself available for the I-Kiribati seafarers pastorally, especially in the hardships of life far from home. Here, too, Nicholls highlighted the importance of the I-Kiribati seafarers’ own contributions. “There are a few leaders among the group of seafarers who are typically the ones we talk to, and they help us by pointing out who is withdrawing more and who might be in trouble.”
Exemplary of the ICMA network, Ristau and Nicholls’ ministries are sharing resources and information with each other. “We’re in contact with Matthias, so we’re fully aware of what’s happening in Fiji and Hamburg, and that the Mission to Seafarers is supporting those that are in South Korea. We really don’t have any connections in Jakarta, though, for making sure that those seafarers are receiving similar levels of care.”
Some of the Hamburg and Brisbane missions’ closest collaborations have been in media outreach. This is made possible in part by the work of another member of Nicholls’ team: “We’re very lucky to have a volunteer, Abby Williams, who is an investigative journalist and researcher with Human Rights at Sea, so she’s been able to put out human interest stories about this in the Australian press. We’ve been in touch with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; I and Matthias have both done interviews with them. Matthias also has been in contact with Agence France-Presse, and they’ve gotten in contact with me too.”
Nicholls has hopes that international collaboration can help the situation, so the Mission to Seafarers in Brisbane has been asking the Government of Australia for help: “This is right in the Australian and New Zealand governments’ back yard: they have all kinds of agreements with Kiribati for labour, medical support, natural disasters, &c. So our governments need to be aware of this and to take it seriously at the highest level.
“Brisbane has been the focal point in Australia for crew change, and has a very good record: 10,000 seafarers have successfully crew changed here without significant incident, and there is a really robust program for managing crews. I’ve been in touch with our Federal Maritime Task Force, and they have a charter flight all sorted out to bring them from here to Terawa. I’ve also heard a communication that the government is working rapidly on setting up a vaccination hub for seafarers. So the logistics are all in place, and it wouldn’t be hard to bring them together.”
For now, though, the I-Kiribati seafarers remain where forces beyond their control have left them, continuing on in what ways they can. “The seafarers are trying their very best but they are not doing that well anymore”, says Capt. Kiraua. “They are frustrated, they are tired, they cannot think about tomorrow because there is no future to think about.”
The ministers involved in serving the seafarers have no illusions about how difficult the situation still is for everyone. As Döring says, “For us, now, they have become close acquaintances and friends, at which point it’s not just a number any more. It’s a person, and a family, that is being hurt.”
Ristau is pragmatic about what can and cannot be done for them. “A lot of the seafarers I talk to in Hamburg are just weighed down by how crazy everything is. They don’t know how long it will be before they come home. The Deutsche Seemannsmission can’t fix all that, but we are doing our best to give them coping strategies and some kind of normalcy.”
Ministers like Ristau, Döring, Park, and Nicholls have done great things for the I-Kiribati seafarers, as have so many others, including the ITF, ICS, IMO, SPMS, the Seafarers’ Charity, not to mention the staff of the many hotels and hostels where they have stayed. All have been moved by sympathy, care, and a sense of obligation to them. But, as with so much in this pandemic no outcome can be promised to them yet; for now those involved can only continue to do their best to help and to cultivate the sympathy that moves them in themselves and others. The members of ICMA, in Hamburg, Busan, Brisbane, and elsewhere, remain committed to that mission.