“If we could only save one life, we had to do it”: who is Sophie Beau, the founder of Sos Méditerranée

“If we could only save one life, we had to do it”: who is Sophie Beau, the founder of Sos Méditerranée

Sophie Beau la directrice et la cofondatrice en 2015 de Sos Méditerranée. Midi Libre – DORIAN CAYUELA

Sophie Beau, a 51-year-old adopted Marseille resident, was behind the creation in 2015 of the NGO Sos Méditerranée which helps refugees threatened with drowning in the Mediterranean. She looks back on her humanitarian journey and the urgency of mobilizing civil society while Europe does not act in the face of the tragedies that are occurring in a sea that has become a cemetery.  

Sophie Beau shakes hands with volunteers and walks through the traveling exhibition “Sos Méditerranée, citizen engagement” that she knows by heart. On this Easter weekend of Stopover in Sète, where onlookers parade to the sound of Lann Bihoué's bagad, the director and founder of the NGO helping refugees at sea, stops short in front of the image of a survivor who stares into the lens. The symbolism is strong: the photo dates from March 7, 2016.

"This is the first rescue of Sos Méditerranée. There is the handshake, the gesture of rescue, we see these people literally coming out of the water otherwise death is assured. Unfortunately, 8 years later, we are at the same point, we receive the same photos" laments the adopted Marseillaise.

"An air mattress was found with 25 people, 60 others were dead"

"At the beginning of March again, we had a horrible rescue, we found an air mattress with 25 people who had been drifting for a week, 60 had fallen into the water and died of hunger, thirst, water and water. rsquo;exhaustion. It's even frightening and shocking to see that, little by little, our Western democracies are getting used to seeing these human tragedies. 

So, humanitarian workers tirelessly continue the fight so that their teams have the means to save lives by sparking the citizen mobilization that is close to their hearts. Which means agreeing to talk about her, for the sole interest of highlighting the NGO.

"His natural authority is unanimous"

"Standing in the light is not Sophie Beau. She does it because it’s necessary, it’s a mission. What characterizes her is her determination, her deep humanity, her composure and her natural authority which is unanimously unanimous" decrypts Jean-Pierre Lacan, spokesperson for the association in Occitanie.

This commitment to humanity, deeply rooted in her body, has been made by the young fifty-year-old for over thirty years. This native of Tours, turned towards studies of ethnology, on migrations in Africa and, already, as a student, her destiny as a leader guided her passion for the other.

"At college, she already had a lot of commitments and she was the instigator of them. With Fabienne who completes the trio, she took us to a Malian worker's home to do literacy classes" recalls Bérangère Matta, today responsible for the mobilization of local authorities for Sos Méditerranée.

"She is a leader, without ego, with incredible strength and ability to involve people in her projects. This is her vocation, she could have been a musician, a professional harpist, she chose humanitarian work".

Sos Méditerranée founded with sailor Klaus Vogel

Sophie Beau will spend 17 years there, after having dabbled in political science and the study of international cooperation. It leads missions in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, the Caucasus and opened the Doctors of the World mission in Gaza in 2002.

She then became a consultant in Marseille and developed the humanitarian aspect of the CGA-CGM foundation, the maritime transport company of the Saadé family. And then came the meeting with the German Klaus Vogel, a captain in the merchant navy: together they founded Sos Méditerranée in 2015.

He the sailor, she the humanitarian who had no connection with the sea, they plan to "create a civil and European association sea ​​rescue".

There is a context: the end of Operation Mare Nostrum, which saw Italy spend a year rescuing tens of thousands of migrants fleeing the chaos of the end of Gaddafi regime in Libya and the war in Syria.

Europe has not taken over, evoking the theory of the call for air still taken up today by detractors of NGOs: their presence would push migrants to board.

"The best demonstration that the call for air has no meaning is that At the end of these rescue operations, the crossings continued massively with a huge number of deaths" denounces Sophie Beau.

"We can't let people die before our eyes"

With Klaus, we said to ourselves that in any case, if we could only rescue one life, we had to do it, we could not remain spectators of this situation which we found absolutely unworthy and scandalous. Of course, that doesn't solve the problem, that's the role of politics. We cannot let people die before our eyes at the gates of Europe.

She finds volunteers – Bérangère and Fabienne – he has a boat to rent: the famous Aquarius which was then succeeded by the current Ocean Viking. Eight years later, it remains more determined than ever not to let the Mediterranean continue to become an immense cemetery.

Despite the headwinds.

"We were physically and psychologically abused"

In France, when the RN contests in court the subsidies granted by the communities or when an ultra-right commando attacks the premises in Marseille:"that had a big impact on me. We were physically and psychologically abused. They were convicted, but they appealed… I did not think that we could reach this level of violence on a humanitarian association which helps people in danger of death".

In adversity, she "armors and moves forward", cut off from social networks and protecting her life deprived of a mother.

In Italy, where the situation deteriorated with the coming to power of the extreme right: administrative seizures of the boat, false accusations of collusion with smugglers or non-compliant sorting of trash (!) and, since a recent decree, obligation to disembark in an assigned port as far away as possible to delay the return to the area of ​​these "troublesome witnesses" .

The fear of no longer seeing boats operating in the Mediterranean

"We save a lot less: 29,000 people with the Aquarius in two and a half years and a little more than 10,000 people with the Ocean Viking since 2019…" summarizes the one that Vanity Fair had ranked in 9th place among the most influential French people in the world in 2018. "My fear is that the action of the Italian authorities is such about the closure of this humanitarian space that we are close to no longer having any ships operating in the Mediterranean. 

But each life saved, 40128 counted on the association's website when we meet it, "allows me to tell myself that it's worth it& quot; launches Sophie Beau, guided by this duty of humanity and so "proud" from the professionalism of its teams, to the unique know-how of mass rescue.

"The voice of the Pope legitimizes our action"

There are also donors, ever more numerous as well as volunteers, particularly in Hérault, the flagship branch: "Sophie has a great acuity compared to Sos Méditerranée which never leaves the frame. She will not let go of anything or anyone, she is at the service of humanity" greets Sétois Michel Tudesq, member of the board of directors.

And then the audience granted to them by Pope Francis, in September in Marseille, gave a tremendous spotlight and subsequently allowed a financial recovery through donations. "He had a clear speech from a moral and political point of view on the rescue, his voice legitimizes our action" she underlines. "But I'm very sad that we still need to be at sea".

Solidarity meetings and a call for donations to help the association

On October 17, the first national solidarity meetings took place in Montpellier, organized at the initiative of the Parliament of the Occitanie Sea with Sos Méditerranée. " The idea is to bring about a reflection, a plea to show that there is no indifference and that in the territories we do not forget not what is happening in the Mediterranean and to demand that States fulfill their obligations" says Sophie Beau.

Whether it is the godfather and skipper François Gabart, the singers Jeanne Added, Camilia Jordana or the rapper Zamdane, actresses like Juliette Binoche, Camille Cottin, writers like Daniel Pennac, they support Sos Méditerranée. Furthermore, a month of solidarity is organized in Paris in December, with major events at the Chatelet theater, to support the financing of the association.

"Initially, with the Aquarius, rescue operations cost 11,000 € per day, with a reduced team and less equipment, today, with the Ocean Viking it’s 24,0000 € per day" recalls the director, referring to the soaring cost of fuel oil. This inflation has endangered the association in 2022 which was able to start again and which counts on its 30,000 donors, but not only: "there is still room&quot ; she estimates. All information on: sosméditerranée.fr

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