A conversation with philanthropist and co-founder & CEO of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), Regina Catrambone, about how empathy, solidarity and entrepreneurship are the drivers behind her relentless work to help the world’s most vulnerable communities.
Boyden’s Global Leadership Matters focuses on conversations with global leaders whose work and leadership are grounded in a commitment to having a positive impact at home and abroad. The interview series sheds light on what global leadership looks like today and tomorrow, and uncovers the importance of cultural and international awareness in leadership.
MOAS was founded by Regina and her husband Christopher in 2014 to alleviate the loss of migrant lives at sea. Between 2014 and 2017, MOAS rescued and assisted more than 40,000 people in the Central Mediterranean Ocean and the Aegean Sea. Today, MOAS is dedicated to helping vulnerable communities around the world, reaching hundreds of thousands of people through its work in countries such as Ukraine, Yemen, Somalia, Bangladesh, and others.
Regina is a firm believer that entrepreneurs can play a vital role in solving the current humanitarian crisis through innovation and creativity. She is convinced that the combination of an entrepreneurial spirit and a humanitarian approach can be a powerful tool for transformative global change.
Regina spoke with Boyden’s Alain Pescador about MOAS’ first decade of high-impact work, humanity’s shared responsibility to care for one another, and the launch of her new book “Raccogliere il mare con un cucchiaino” or “Collecting the sea with a teaspoon.”
Alain: To begin, I’m curious to learn about your background and how this formed you into the leader you are today?
Regina: I grew up in Reggio Calabria, in Southern Italy. My education began within a Catholic learning environment, fostering a culture of solidarity, acceptance, and openness. My first encounter with refugees was as a child at the beach with my parents and brother. People would be selling colourful beach balls, rackets, sunglasses, towels, hats, etc. They spoke a lovely dialect that merged French and Italian. After several years I realized these people often carried incredible stories of hardship, suffering, loss and separation from their families and cultures.
This stayed with me into adulthood as I began to dedicate more time to promoting solidarity amongst my immediate social circle. I grew up curious to understand cultures, languages, and livelihoods different from my own. This was the 1990s when the European Union was preparing to invite the largest cohort of countries since its inception.
Thanks to my husband, Christopher, I became increasingly interested in migration. His work experience and logistics skills combined with a strong motivation allowed us to achieve what MOAS is today. The organization was ultimately born from the union of our know-how. The opportunity to engage with individuals and communities of varying faiths, cultures, traditions, and languages, through our extensive global travel and humanitarian work, has further motivated and inspired us in our fight against injustice and indifference.
Alain: MOAS turns 10 this year. Congratulations! How would you describe the first decade of the work and impact of MOAS?
Regina: The first MOAS team mission was led by my husband Christopher and departed from the quay of the Grand Harbour in Malta. It seems like yesterday when I waved goodbye as they began the first search and rescue operation, determined to save lives in the Central Mediterranean. Over the last 10 years, that first step has transformed into a daily commitment to carry out activities in support of the most vulnerable communities. I feel extremely grateful to be able to do this work. Thanks to our team, donors, and loyal supporters, we rescued close to 40,000 individuals, including children, who were searching for safety in the Mediterranean Sea. We now provide medical aid and disaster risk reduction training to save lives in refugee camps in Bangladesh. We provide emergency medical care and transport to those facing ongoing hardship in Ukraine and we are delivering malnutrition aid to vulnerable children in Yemen and Somalia. We are also promoting integration pathways, through education, training, and community activities in Malta.
We have created a community that relentlessly speaks out for #SafeAndLegalRoutes that ensure safe passage for people in need of international protection; routes that do not force them to put their lives at risk to claim asylum. We believe that denying these channels, especially to the most vulnerable, has the sole effect of increasing the number of victims attempting to cross borders while the illegal business of human trafficking proliferates.
Alain: Given the range of global issues the world is facing, how has MOAS been able to sustain support for displaced people around the world ensuring that the refugee crisis continues to be at the top of the international agenda?
Regina: Since its inception, MOAS has been committed to providing rapid response relief, innovative programing and support to refugees and vulnerable communities facing emergency situations across the world. For example, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated challenges pushed and motivated us even further to adapt, innovate and engage in completely new projects. In Bangladesh we established a facemask production project for frontline workers, local communities and Rohingya refugees. In Malta, we also created a mask making project, as well as a remote learning initiative for migrant children without access to technology or an adequate Internet connection. In Ukraine, where we’ve been since February 2022, MOAS runs emergency evacuations for chronically ill children who are unable to flee using regular transportation and are trapped in areas of heavy shelling. With up to 100 tactical medics at a time, operating a fleet of 30 ambulances, MOAS has triaged and treated more than 10,000 people on the frontline and over 20,000 in communities cut off from health infrastructure. We’ve provided training on cutting-edge medical techniques to around 10,000 health care providers and local people to improve the overall health and well-being of the population. We are committed to ensuring that the refugee crisis continues to be at the top of the international agenda through our advocacy campaign for safe and legal routes and making our voices heard in international forums.
Alain: I’ve known you for close to six years and I’ve found you to be one of the most empathetic and solidary-focused leaders I’ve ever met. What role does empathy play in the way you lead MOAS and your team of colleagues who are on the ground dealing with some of the most urgent and complicated situations in the world?
Regina: Thank you for the kind words. I deeply believe empathy takes us to a place without borders and opens a window to the universal human experience. It is a value that must be restored, because it overcomes all barriers to kindness, ultimately revealing the true nature of humans.
We should never forget that as human beings we all share hopes, dreams, fears and wishes. In light of this, we cannot be indifferent and passive in the face of those suffering around us. I always try to live my life with the ethical and moral values I grew up with. But this is not enough. It is thanks to the skills of Christopher, the operation managers, and the members of our team that the MOAS system works. None of this would exist without them. Here, one mustn’t forget providence, it is a constant reminder that my faith is my anchor. I’m happy to share with you the words spoken by Pope Francis in a deserted St. Peter’s Square in the first year of the pandemic: “We were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat are all of us. We have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this. Nobody saves himself alone.”
Alain: In addition to being an empathetic leader, are there other traits or values that guide your approach to leadership?
Regina: For me the real leader is the team. MOAS is a big family, and we work together to put into practice the values and objectives we share. The goal at MOAS is helping those most in need, to fulfil the gaps often overlooked by the system. To do so, solid teamwork is a must. I also believe in the spirit of gratitude. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48).
Ultimately our missions are inspired by the spirit of solidarity, and always have at heart the needs of the most vulnerable. Our initiatives are driven by respect for human dignity and within the principle of subsidiarity and sustainable participation. Inspired by sound, ethical and social principles, our capacity, talent and work have the power to contribute to the common good of the world.
Alain: You’ve helped thousands of forcibly displaced people who risk their lives in search of safety. In this interview series, we aim to highlight the competitive advantage of having diverse lived experiences (at times complicated ones) and the value of intercultural and international awareness. Can you share your views on the value that refugees add to societies and why including refugees into society is more an advantage than a disadvantage?
Regina: The war in Ukraine is horrible and should never have happened. But it has shown us something very important. Since the commencement of hostilities, we have witnessed an unprecedented reception of refugees. The fact that European countries have opened their doors to those fleeing the war demonstrates that as a society we still possess the propensity to be hospitable; and that we can still serve as hosts to those in need without speaking of invasion. So why not use the same weight and the same measure for those fleeing conflicts in other countries of the world? Why not accept with the same mechanism those fleeing the conflict in Syria or in Yemen? Insularity impoverishes us, while being inclusive and receptive brings enrichment for all.
Alain: What is your vision for the impact that MOAS can have?
Regina: We will have to focus on Ukraine because there will be so much to do. We will have to invest in creating a non-emergency-based system for managing migration through the implementation of safe and legal routes. We need to stop being reactive and start being proactive in the handling of migration. Starvation, conflict, displaced persons, and climate change are some of the many challenges in the years to come. Yemen, Somalia, Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Lebanon, Venezuela, Mali, Chad, Niger, and Sudan are countries that will be at the heart of the world’s humanitarian crises. We are committed to continuing our contributions to the betterment of the world and the support of all migrants.
Alain: Finally, you are about to publish your first book. Can you tell us about it?
Regina: The debate on migration has, in recent years, regressed through a progressive escalation in discourse and dehumanized the issue. Fake news and hate speech have reinforced and exacerbated the criminalization of solidarity. Migrants become invisible because we talk about them, but never with them, while at the same time silencing them. It’s easy to dehumanize people whose lives, faces and dreams are unknown. It doesn’t take much effort to be cruel about people who are just represented by a number. Numbers don’t have feelings, scars, wounds, families, and histories. But behind those figures are people of flesh and bone, with souls and dreams. Like us, they too are searching for a peaceful, better future. The book is titled “Raccogliere il mare con un cucchiaino,” which in English means “Collecting the sea with a teaspoon.” It refers to an act that initially appears to be impossible to achieve and that, from the onset, disheartens one from even attempting to address the issue. This book challenges this notion. Through stories and reflections, it demonstrates that great change can be achieved through even the smallest of gestures.
At this particular moment in history, I felt it was necessary and important to share these personal experiences because I hope that they can contribute to a more realistic understanding of the migration issue, rectifying people’s perspective to, hopefully, serve as a guiding wind to those navigating the often-tumultuous sea of information on this subject.
Regina Catrambone is an Italian philanthropist, co-Founder and CEO of the international, humanitarian search-and-rescue organization MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station), and Chairperson of Tangiers Group. Through her extensive global travel and humanitarian work, she engages with people of varying faiths, cultures, traditions and languages. These experiences motivate and inspire her fight against injustice and indifference. Her story has been extensively documented by the international and Italian press, including: Der Spiegel, Wired, The Independent, Azure, CNN, BBC, La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera, and others.
Alain Pescador is a key member of Boyden's Social Impact Practice, with 12+ years of international experience leading not-for-profit initiatives, building thought leadership platforms, and advising politicians, NGOs, and public intellectuals. Alain’s work specializes on recruitment mandates with a global angle, working with executives and boards to instate forward-thinking leaders who strive to create a lasting impact in the world. A global citizen with roots in Canada and Mexico, he brings to his work a vast network of contacts in government, business, civil society, arts and culture, and academia.