Dr. Pietro Bartolo is an Italian activist and politician from the Italian island of Lampedusa, which in the last few decades became a popular entry point for illegal migrants and refugees trying to get to Europe. As head of Lampedusa Health Centre, for many years, he has been providing medical aid to the people arriving by sea. Today, as member of the European Parliament, he fights for their rights on the international level, designing equitable migration policies that would make the Western countries accept responsibility for their dark colonial past.
Born in 1956 in the family of a fisherman and a housewife, Dr. Pietro Bartolo used to help his father as a child. It was during that time that he gained an acute personal awareness of what being a victim of a shipwreck meant. “I was thirteen years old. The others had not noticed that I had gone overboard. They did not realize I was gone until they reached the port. At that time GPS did not exist; the stars guided the fishermen of Lampedusa. The same stars saved my life as they guided the fishing boat that returned to sea in search of me. I was stranded for four hours, alone in the middle of darkness. After that experience, I did not speak for more than a year. That moment would change the rest of my life. As long as I am alive, I will fight to ensure that no one is abandoned in the open sea,” says Dr. Bartolo.
His desire to help people has also defined his career choice – he decided to study medicine, specializing in gynecology and obstetrics at the university. “In the 1960s and 1970s, women still gave birth at home on Lampedusa. There were neither gynecologists nor hospitals to care for women experiencing complications,” explains Pietro Bartolo. Many women he knew as a child died while or after giving birth, and he was determined to change that. During his studies in Catania, he met his future wife, also a doctor. She continues to practice medicine on Lampedusa today.
Starting from the 1990s, Dr. Bartolo provided first aid to the people who reached the shores of Lampedusa in search of a better life, after an exhausting and dangerous journey. He was already in his late fifties when he experienced another profound moment of reckoning. On October 3, 2013, Pietro Bartolo witnessed an unspeakable tragedy when a migrant-carrying vessel sank near the island: “[There was] a shipwreck less than 500 meters from the coast of Lampedusa. 368 people lost their lives, among them a very young mother who had just given birth. As the head of the Lampedusa Health Centre, which I helped to build, I performed autopsies on all the bodies. From that moment on, I began my fight to stop similar tragedies from ever occurring again.”
It is estimated that in his thirty-year career at the Lampedusa Health Center, he has provided first aid to around 250,000 people arriving by sea. But to Dr. Bartolo, numbers don’t really matter. “I have never counted my patients; they are not numbers. They are human beings that are in search of a better future for themselves and their children. Our world is politically responsible for this exodus and we simply cannot look the other way,” he says.
It is the children’s suffering that haunts him the most. He once had to care for a migrant girl, barely ten years old, who was absolutely alone. The only thing she knew was that her mom was somewhere “in Europe.” “It took us months, asking anyone for help, even the Pope and the President of Italy, for the whereabouts of Anila’s mother. We found her in France, alone, forced into prostitution. We got her out of that environment, found her a job and reunited her with her daughter,” says Dr. Bartolo. She still sends him photos of her daughter. Every time, he is profoundly moved.
Pietro Bartolo has done so much on-the-ground work to alleviate human suffering that the policymakers started seeking his expertise, too. In July 2019, he had to leave his beloved practice after being elected to the European Parliament where he continues his fight for migrants as Vice President of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs in Brussels. As a shadow rapporteur for the Socialists and Democrats political group, now he is working on a new pact on migration currently under discussion at the European Parliament.
Dr. Bartolo is positive that change is needed on all levels. “I believe that each one of us should do his or her part as politicians can only do so much. In Europe and in the rest of the world the levels of racism and xenophobia are increasing. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated the situation for those who had been living precariously even before this healthcare emergency hit us. Now more than ever, we have to ensure that no one is left behind in the attempt to build a better world for the future.”
Speaking of the future, his goals for the humanity include the triumph over the pandemic and the big environmental issue of climate change. Meanwhile, he finds solace and inspiration in his work, driven by the personal connection with the people he helps: “It is the happy ending for the many who made it that inspires me to continue my work, so that the “happy ending” of a dignified life can become a right and not a privilege for the few survivors of hell.”
Dr. Pietro Bartolo has seen many tragedies and losses. But he has also witnessed outstanding acts of resilience, selflessness and commitment that help him remain optimistic – and full of gratitude. “I am grateful to my parents who, despite a big family and not much wealth, gave me an opportunity to study and to become a doctor. I am grateful to Kebrat, a young girl who had been a victim of the October 3 tragedy and was initially presumed dead before I felt her heartbeat and helped her. Today, she’s a strong woman. I am grateful to an acquaintance who recently welcomed into his family a young victim of one of the countless shipwrecks that have stained the Mediterranean Sea,” says Dr. Bartolo, adding: “Gratitude is one of the highest forms of respect that we can show one another.”