Migrants get 3 mins to call home

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After an 11-month journey across desert and sea, Mohamed finally hears his mother's voice once more thanks to a Red Cross camper that travels across Italy to help migrants call home.

From the border crossing of Ventimiglia in the country's north to the southern island of Lampedusa, this white converted camper van has offered hundreds of freshly-arrived migrants a three minute call to their nearest and dearest.

Last stop was the capital Rome, where it pottered to a halt Monday in front of a Red Cross tent camp which houses up to 200 people plucked from unseaworthy vessels in the Mediterranean before they are sent to reception centres.

Mohamed, a 27-year-old from Senegal, takes his place at one of the tables manned by volunteers laid out in the sunshine, as others from Bangladesh, Eritrea, Pakistan and West Africa crowd around, some unable to believe their luck.

It can take time: numbers might not work, there may be network issues, or the phone rings off the hook. But often, a mother, brother or neighbour picks up on the other side of the world, and the distance drops away.

“I have not spoken to my mum for five months, I heard her voice and it was like a blow to the heart, a blow of madness. I'm happy,” Mohamed tells AFP with a wide smile.

He left home in April 2016, crossed the Sahara desert, was held hostage in Libya, before escaping and setting out to sea, where he was rescued by a Norwegian ship operating under the European border agency Frontex.

He was brought to Sicily on Sunday, and was driven to the capital overnight and given a bed at the Red Cross camp.

Mohamed used his three minutes -- as the seconds tick down on a timer clock beside him -- to thank his elder sister, who gave him the money for the journey.

He also urgently wants to warn his friends: “Never try what I did. I risked my life.”

It is not the first time the Red Cross volunteers have seen people warning loved ones. A few weeks ago in Pozzallo, Sicily, an Ivorian woman used the phone call to beg her mother to stop other young women leaving.

“Libya is hell,” she sobbed according to the Red Cross, describing how she was raped by men holding her captive there.

“My head was there in the village, mother, it was only my body that was with those men,” she was quoted as saying.

The calls can be difficult when migrants discover someone back home has died.

Others are moments of celebration, such as one in which a Malian man finally got through to his wife only to be told she had given birth to their baby boy.

In either case the calls work wonders, says project manager Francesco Montrone, who since mid-January has overseen over 1,500 calls, 60 percent of which have been successful.

“The mood in the centres changes a lot once the migrants call home. They calm down, the atmosphere is more relaxed,” Montrone said.

The project was launched a year ago in the Netherlands by the Vodafone Foundation which finances the camper and pays for the calls.

The unit, which has spent two months on loan to the Italian Red Cross, will now return to tour Dutch reception centres, but Montrone hopes it won't be the last Italy sees of this mobile psychological lifeline.

Reception centres are obliged to provide migrants with telephone cards, but those waiting to be transferred from first responder camps do not have this privilege, nor do those living in informal settlements at the borders.

A shy young Nigerian sits down at one of the tables, shivering in his threadbare clothes. The volunteer assigned to take care of him runs to get him a body warmer before helping him dial his father's number.

At the next table, a Pakistani who arrived last week reassures his brother he is well until an alarm clock sounds: the three minutes are up.

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