Author: Heather Greenaway
Jim Snedden looks at this heartbreaking photo and wonders on a daily basis what happened to the helpless refugee girl he plucked from the Mediterranean.
It may be two years since the firefighter saved the teenager from being crushed to death on an overcrowded dinghy. But her face still haunts his dreams.
The frightened 16-year-old, whose photo has pride of place on his mantelpiece, had such an impact on Jim, 48, that he has signed up as an ambassador for the Scottish Refugee Council .
The dad of three, who helped save the lives of more than 2000 refugees fleeing conflict in Africa and the Middle East via Libya in 2016, is helping immigrants settle in Scotland.
Jim, whose bravery saw him named as our Great Scot of 2017 , may never see the girl in his photo again but hopes he will be able to give others like her a better life.
Speaking as we launch our search for the Great Scots of 2018, the rescue swimmer, who volunteered with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) charity, said: “I don’t know her name or what became of her but that girl will forever haunt me. She is a symbol of the most traumatic three weeks of my life and terrible scenes I’ll never be able to unsee.
“Our paths crossed when I boarded a small dinghy packed with at least 130 people. I noticed a hand reaching into the air from below the crush.
“I reached down and pulled and out came the little girl. A few minutes more and she would have suffocated. She threw her arms round my neck and refused to let go until we were back on dry land. I will never forget the look in her eyes.”
Jim, who is dad to Lewis, 20, Stephanie, 19, and Victoria, 13, added: “After the mission, I was given a set of images a photographer had taken and among them was this one of me and the girl. Each time I look at it, I wonder where she is and if she’s safe. It pains me that I will never know what became of her and all the others.
“I still think about the rescue every day and knowing I can’t do more for those I helped save has proved even more traumatic than the mission itself – that’s why becoming an ambassador with
the refugee council is such a tonic.
“I might not be able to help the immigrants I rescued but I can help those who have made it to this
country. I’m hoping it will help give me some closure.”
The firefighter, of Dunblane, is still waiting for the day his nightmares will stop. He said: “At the moment there isn’t a day or night that goes past that I don’t think of the poor souls on those boats who were prepared to risk everything, including their lives, for freedom and a life we all take for granted.
“I like to think they will have found happiness elsewhere but it’s doubtful. All I can do now is try to make life easier for refugees in Scotland.”
Jim, who trains members of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in swift water, river and flood rescues, has had a busy year.
As well as his new ambassadorial role, he has saved the life of a jet skier while on holiday and trained the Danish royal family in the art of water rescue.
Jim, who is married to teacher Helen, 45, said: “I always seem to be in the wrong place at the right time. When we were on holiday in Greece, my son – who is a retained firefighter – and I pulled a guy out of the sea who had come off his jet ski and washed up on the rocks.
“He had passed out and was lying on his back. I jumped in and swam him to the side, where he quickly came to. After thanking us in broken English, he got back on his jet ski and left.”
Jim added: “Apart from my refugee volunteer work, I’ve been busy running courses as there are now 20 stations from Aberdeen to Dumfries who have officers trained in swift water rescue.
“A few weeks ago, I had the honour of chatting to Princess Marie of Denmark, who was over with a delegation learning about how our fire service responds to severe weather flooding.”
Jim is urging readers to nominate their unsung heroes for this year’s Great Scot Awards – in association with Steven Brown Art – and says winning the overall award was one of his proudest moments.
He said: “Being involved in the Mediterranean rescue mission was a turning point in my life and winning the Great Scot Award was another.
“We are a year on and I still can’t believe it happened. It has opened so many doors for me and is the reason I am involved with the Scottish Refugee Council as I was approached on the night by one of their members.
“It’s lovely to have an awards ceremony that honours Scotland’s unsung heroes. There are so many ordinary folk doing extraordinary things and I would urge everyone reading this to nominate them.”
He added: “Every firefighter attends an incident that changes their lives – mine was pulling that girl out of the boat. She will never know how much she affected me but she has inspired me to help refugees closer to home.”
Our title sponsor said: “Steven Brown Art are absolutely honoured and delighted to support celebrating the incredible achievements of ordinary people across Scotland.”