Father Mussie Zerai (born in Asmara, 1975) is an Eritrean Roman Catholic priest and refugees’ rights advocate. Referred to as “the migrant priest,” “guardian angel of the refugees,” and “refugees’ first responder,” Fr. Zerai advocates for solutions for migrants fleeing war, famine, and persecution across Africa and the Middle East. A 2015 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Fr. Zerai is the co-founder of Agenzia Habeshia, a global humanitarian organization that works with asylum seekers and refugees.
Watch the VOA 52 Documentary about Fr. Zerai
In 2003, an American journalist wrote Fr. Zerai’s phone number on the walls of a Libyan detention center. Since then, the priest’s personal cell phone has become an unofficial migrant crisis-line. Father Zerai has received thousands of emergency calls from distressed refugees on wrecked and sinking vessels in the Mediterranean sea over the past two decades. When he does, he coordinates an emergency response with the Italian and Maltese Coast Guard. If no action is taken he remonstrates on news outlets, social media, and via email campaigns. Fr. Zerai says he’s helped save more than 150,000 refugees’ lives since 2011.
Fr. Zerai was born in war-torn Asmara, Eritrea. He and seven siblings were raised by his Catholic grandmother after his mother died when he was five-years-old and his father sought political asylum in Italy. Fr. Zerai said of his early years: “There was an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, spies were everywhere, and there was fear because all of a sudden, people were arbitrarily arrested and vanished into thin air. Then, there was war, the noise of the bombs. This general atmosphere pushed me to leave my country.”
Eager to start a new life, at sixteen years old, Fr. Zerai traveled from Eritrea to Italy on a tourist visa. Refugee advocate and religious leader Peter James Bonn (aka the refugees’ James Bond) helped him secure his residence papers, and encouraged Fr. Zerai to leverage his language skills to help provide fellow refugees with translation and support services.
In 2000, he started his theological schooling at the Scalabrinian congregation, fulfilling his lifelong dream to serve the church. In 2010, he became an ordained priest. Today, he ministers to thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean Catholics across Europe. And he attends political events worldwide, denouncing human rights violations. “My pastoral and humanitarian work are the two sides of the same coin.”
In November 2016, Fr. Zerai was investigated for abetting illegal immigration by prosecutors in Trapani, Italy. The case was later dropped. Despite the legal threat, Fr. Zerai is committed to calling attention to injustices. “Those who had a political interest in criminalizing solidarity with migrants and refugees have attacked, vilified, and defamed us. There was nothing illegal. I believe to have done just my duty in reporting and saving human lives. With time, history surely will prove me right.”
Linda Freund is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.