MATT FADER: JOURNEY FROM SURFER TO SYRIAN REFUGEE RESCUE LEADER
We are proud and privileged to have Matt Fader as the subject of our first Shine article. I’ve known Matt for over twenty years. He was my neighbor and one of my first friends when I moved to Laguna Beach in the early ‘90s. Matt was also one of the first people who showed me how to catch waves and was always stoked when he saw his friends catch a good wave, charge a big wave, or pull a nice maneuver on a wave. He was one of the few people I remember who would give you a wave that he was in position for. “It’s yours,” he would say, and be truly stoked he gave it to you.
Matt was always ahead of his time and was styling Bonzers and retro, twin-fin, swallow-tails when everyone else was trying to surf 6’0” Channel Island potato chips (like only Kelly Slater could). A true hippy at heart, you could never be sure if he would answer his door, ‘cause (more likely than not) he and his girlfriend would be playing bongos in their kitchen, naked, drinking Kava, and painting each other with natural dyes made from roots and berries (or something weird to everyone else but them), which bonded them.
Most of all, Matt was someone who had your back. He stood up for what he believed was right—and especially his friends, right or wrong. He was well educated in plethora of pursuits and knowledge, and carried himself with a balance of confidence, humility, and humanity that was rare and unique.
Not surprising then that Matt married his beautiful bongo partner and Swedish girlfriend, moved to Sweden, started a family, lived life well, and eventually spearheaded a sea rescue team that would comprise a small cadre of boats that has rescued thousands of Syrian refugees over the past few years.
A few years ago, he posted a simple, grainy video on his Facebook page that he took of just rescued refugee children playing a simple bonding game, holding hands in a circle with their rescuers, making the circle go smaller then bigger, laughing with pure joy as a memento of the journey they completed.
This, he said was something he instituted to help humanize the rescue experience and give the rescued children a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos. This video got me admittedly misty because it was like seeing a good friend and even better person win a gold medal—at life.
I caught up with Matt and was able to find out more about what he has been doing and the challenges he faces.
ATA: Career wise, what are you doing with your life right now?
Matt: I work full-time for the Swedish Sea Rescue Organization as the head of personnel and operations. We are a volunteer organization with over 2000 volunteers. We receive no government funding. In fact, our entire budget comes from private donations. We have state of the art rescue boats, built in house.
ATA: How did you end up rescuing refugees?
Matt: I wanted to save refugees and in 2015 had the opportunity to work with Doctors Without Borders. I became a board member (one of 8 trustees) to the International Sea Rescue Organization, and around June 2015, found myself on a rescue boat off of Libya, in charge of establishing rescue procedures for the International Maritime Rescue Foundation.
ATA: What would your typical day be like in 2015?
Matt: We would launch boats from Libya in the morning, and try to rescue as many people as we could during daylight hours.
Operating 20 some nautical miles offshore from Libya is not without risk. Libya is a chaotic and bad place during and especially after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. The refugees and migrants that made it across the desert from war-torn impoverished countries were enslaved and tortured. They took a chance to cross the sea even if it meant death just to escape hell-on-earth.
It was dangerous for us rescuers as well. Military factions with boats would shoot at and board our vessels looking for bribes. One time our crew had to retreat into the ”safe room” in the ship’s machine room called the Citadel. It was there I heard one of the most surreal, scary and somewhat comforting sentences of my life from the French ex-legionaire security officer: ”Matthew, don’t worry, if they shoot a RPG (rocket propelled grenade) I think we will be safe!”
ATA: Describe your typical rescue at sea?
Matt: Sometimes smooth, and other times chaotic. You see, the adage of women and children first doesn’t really resonate in many parts of the world. Moreover, when it comes to life or death, people’s reptile mind often takes over, and as a result self-preservation sometimes takes precedence over what is right. Notwithstanding, we stuck with the rescue policy of women and children first, and for the most part, people “got it” and despite their circumstances, usually complied with it.
ATA: What other things lead to chaos?
Matt: The worst situations were a direct result of bad advice from the smugglers who placed these people in peril. Smugglers told people that if you’re a boat in distress someone has to save you. It’s the law of sea. Boats in distress have to be saved. That is what was communicated. People would then make bad decisions based on this terrible advice. They would puncture their cheap, rubber, dingy boats with a knife and capsize it with hundreds of people aboard, immediately placing everyone in the boat in danger. To make things worse, sometimes women and children would be severely burned by fuel deliberately lit in the middle of the boats to create the illusion of peril. As a result, you would have many rescues where there would be hundreds of people in open water, with no or few life jackets, injured, traumatized, and burned, and you would have to figure out how to save as many people as you can.
ATA: Sounds overwhelming. What could you do at that point? What sort of decisions did you have to make?
Matt: The most difficult thing to do for me and each member of my crew was to curb your instinct to jump in and try and live a “Baywatch” moment. Doing that, no matter who you are trying to rescue is simply inefficient and requires that additional resources and man power are used to rescue the rescuer as well as everyone else in the water. Essentially, you are losing one person acting as a rescuer and adding him to the pool of individuals needing to be rescued. By trying to play hero, it results in placing you and your crew in peril and fewer individuals being rescued.
No matter what the situation, it was our strict policy to have the rescuers stay on the boat and rescue people one by one. In a situation where several hundred people are in open water, we would throw out anything that floats, so that people could hold onto it long enough to get rescued.
ATA: Once people are rescued, and safely on the boat, what other decisions did you have to make?
Matt: It was always a balance between “Load and go” (get people medical attention and to safety) and “Stay and play” (rescue more people). Back in 2015, we had a lot of different agencies (from military coast guards to other NGO’s) helping one another. As a result, there was a lot of transferring between boats, wherein one boat would take over medical cases, and get those people to a safe place (such as Italy), which was often 24-36 hours away. Fortunately, cooperation in 2015 was at a very high level and more often than not, we were able to find that balance through cooperation with like-minded individuals, who like us, simply wanted to save lives.
ATA: What was your most memorable rescue?
Matt: About two years ago, we were on the north side of an island, looking for people to be rescued. We came upon a group of about 17 people (mostly women and children), whose boat had capsized two days earlier, and they were now trapped on the cliffs nearly 100 feet up. We had to send in rescue swimmers who had to climb up the cliffs and rappel those people down. This included a baby and a grandma. By the time we found these people, we only had a few hours of daylight and a storm coming in. So, time was of the essence.
The first person we saved was a teenaged boy, who knew the best English. Once we brought him down to safety, we were able to use him to communicate specific instructions back to the rest of his family and other individuals who needed to be rescued. One by one we rescued the entire group, with the last one being saved at dusk.
Did you ever have any contact with any of the individuals you rescued?
Ironically, by chance, I ran into to the teenage boy, who interpreted for us in the rescue I just described to you.
He and his family had ended up seeking asylum in Sweden, and I saw him there, as if by fate. We were able to speak and find out what happened to him and his family. At the end of our conversation, He said “Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for treating me like a human being.”
Shine on, Matt Fader. Shine on.
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