Nine-month-old Favour arrived alone on the island of Lampedusa, which lies closer to the shores of north Africa than Italy, after her father and pregnant mother died during a nightmare journey which left five people dead and many survivors suffering serious chemical burns.
The boat, carrying about 120 people largely from Mali and Nigeria, overturned on Tuesday after the migrants rushed to one side on spotting a rescue ship – a frequent and often fatal mistake which has led to many similar disasters.
Survivors pulled from the sea were taken to Lampedusa's hospital and reception centre, including small, blue-hatted Favour.
Pietro Bartolo, the island's only doctor, has cared for hundreds of undernourished, dehydrated and distressed migrants and examined countless bodies of those who have drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of the crisis. Bartolo appeared in the film Fuocammare, which recently had a huge impact at Berlin's annual film festival, picking up award nominations and enthusiastic reviews.
But little Favour made a particular impact. “I saw a small, beautiful baby girl,” Bartolo told Il Corriere, remembering the moment he met her. “She was slightly dehydrated, but she’s doing well. I accompanied her myself to the welcome centre and handed her over to police care. She’s in good hands.”
“Happy moments… Doctor Hope! Good work! May it always be like this.”
“I would adopt her if I could, I want to keep her with me forever,” he said in interviews published across Italian media on Thursday, adding that “someone must adopt her and give her a new life”. While he explained that at nearly 60 years old it would be unlikely that he would be granted custody, Bartolo added that the telephone at the welcome centre had been ringing continuously with families asking to adopt the baby.
“She is a marvellous creature, she hugged me, she didn't shed a tear,” he said.
Bartolo met nine-month-old Favour off the rescue boat, taking her from the arms of a young woman – one of 20 people suffering burns severe enough to warrant hospital treatment – who recounted the fate suffered by the infant's parents and explained that they had asked her to care for the baby.
Favour would not be Bartolo's first foster child: the 59-year-old took in a 17-year-old Tunisian boy five years ago, according to La Stampa daily.
As he held Favour, who played with the red glasses hung around his neck, he told La Stampa that her survival against the odds reminded him of the miraculous recovery of a woman years ago who had been placed in a body bag in Lampedusa before he discovered a weak pulse.
Holding and playing with the little girl brought a ray of joy to a grim job which sees Bartolo stare death repeatedly in the face.”When they say you get used to it after a bit, I answer that I have never got used to it. And each time I have to open a body bag I am sick to my stomach,” he said.