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This Woman's Cell Phone Has Become A Lifeline For Migrants Crossing The Mediterranean

Nawal Soufi, who lives in southern Italy, gave her number out in Syria while volunteering there in 2013 and now gets calls from people while they’re at sea and need to be rescued.

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This is Nawal Soufi, a 27-year-old woman who lives in southern Italy and whose mobile phone has become a kind of 911 emergency number for the record numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe this year.

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Soufi gave her number out to some people in Syria while volunteering and doing some freelance journalism there in 2013, and after she returned to Italy in the summer she started getting SOS calls and texts in Arabic from people at sea. Her number has been passed around increasingly as migrants who reach Italy advise others making the journey to save it on their phones.

Born in Morocco and brought up in Italy, Soufi speaks both Arabic and Italian. In her newfound role as a rescuer, she handles a huge number of calls not only from people at sea, but also from relatives of passengers who want to know if their loved ones have made it to Europe. She posts many of the calls and texts on her Facebook page, where she has over 35,000 followers.

"It's all the time — it's night and day," Daniele Biella, an Italian journalist who published a book about Soufi in May, told BuzzFeed News. "Some [relatives] keep calling after one month, after one year. They don't want to give up ... In some ways losing someone at sea is worse than finding their body somewhere. You're left in this limbo."

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Soufi gets people at sea to send her their boat's coordinates using the GPS trackers on their phones, then passes the details to the Italian coast guard so they can be rescued. The first three words from the sender here are, "Help, water, leakage."

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In this text, she tells someone at sea that she'll send credit to their phone remotely — and also asks if anyone from the boat has drowned. Many of her texts are in Franco Arabic, a form of Arabic for messaging that uses the Western alphabet.

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The calls asking for help from Soufi often come from dialing codes starting with +88, which are often used by phones on a satellite network or outside any single country's network.

In this audio clip from one of the phonecalls, she talks to a panicked man at sea who says he is Syrian, and talks him through how to use his phone settings to get his GPS location.

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She also posted this phonecall in June, which she says is with an Italian coast guard official. She gives him the co-ordinates to locate what she's been told is a blue wooden boat that contains 250 people and is struggling to stay afloat.

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This year has seen a sharp rise in the number of migrants from the Middle East and Africa crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe — and a rise in the number dying when shoddy and overcrowded boats capsize.

Over 150,000 migrants have made the crossing so far this year, well over double the same period in 2014, according to the EU's border agency. Around 1,800 people were declared dead or missing by early May, around 20 times the toll during the same months last year, the BBC reported. The vast majority of arrivals are in Italy and Greece.

The boats carry a mix of refugees fleeing wars and dictatorships and migrants seeking work. Around a third of people making the crossing come from Syria, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency — where a brutal civil war has caused over 4 million people to flee their homes since 2011. The second largest chunk of people are from Eritrea, widely viewed as one of the world's most oppressive countries.

Soufi's Facebook page contains a lot of photos of her with groups of new arrivals in southern Italy, bearing the caption, "Welcome!"

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She also helps new arrivals to buy tickets for trains to Milan, Al Jazeera reported in May. The report added that the city is a jumping-off point for many migrants to travel covertly to northern Europe's wealthier countries.

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Soufi posted this photo while in Greece last year. The Italian caption says that 700 refugees are refusing to get off a boat because they don't want to stay in that country but instead want to head north because they have relatives there.

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Soufi simply tells migrants the correct prices for train tickets so they don't pay overblown fees to a middleman to get to Milan, Agence France-Presse reported last month. The Italian coast guard once warned her that they would report her to the police for aiding illegal immigration by doing this, but the police didn't take any action against her after she explained her work, according to Biella, the author.

Under the EU's migration rules, people must get fingerprinted and apply for asylum first in the country where they land — but many want to seek work in northern Europe's wealthier countries where unemployment rates are often far lower, the Wall Street Journal reported this month. This causes a further scramble across the continent once migrants and refugees have made it across the sea.

Soufi's nonstop role can at times wear her out, Biella told BuzzFeed News. "When I ask her, she says, 'What would you do if you received a call like this in the night? Would you just turn over and go back to sleep?'" he said. "When she sees that +88 code on her phone, she can't not answer."

Soufi didn't respond to repeated requests via Facebook and email for an interview.

Maged Atef in Cairo contributed to this report.

Shyamantha Asokan is a foreign news reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Shyamantha Asokan at shyamantha.asokan@buzzfeed.com.

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