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Surviving a Sea That Stole Almost Everything: One Refugee’s Story


Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Lesbos, Greece, in 2015, as Spanish volunteers, in yellow shirts, help them. CREATIVE COMMONS

“I represent just one voice among the millions who risk their lives every day in order to live a life of dignity,” writes Doaa Al Zamel, a young Syrian woman who survived a horrific journey across the Mediterranean. “Every family in my country has lost so much that they have had to rebuild their homes in their hearts. We have lost our homeland, and our dreams are in the past.”

After six years of war, nearly seven million Syrian people are now refugees. Last year was the deadliest yet for those attempting to cross the Mediterranean — more than 5,000 people lost their lives. As experiences are swept into numbers, witnesses abroad may lose sight of the human narrative. Meanwhile, statistics have become fodder for politicians who use fearmongering to justify policies that violate international human-rights laws and strengthen the rhetoric of nationalism.

For Melissa Fleming, a former spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and now a member of the UN secretary-general’s staff, the task was to shift that narrative to the people whose lives have been upended. As she said in a recent interview, “If people knew their stories, I don’t think there would be so many walls.”

In 2015, she met Doaa, a young woman who survived a journey that left some 500 people dead at sea. That encounter, which helped Doaa to eventually reunite with her family in Sweden, led to a Tedx talk by Fleming that has received more than one million views and a book released in January.

In the publication, “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss and Survival,” Fleming writes that during her initial conversation with Doaa, “it soon became clear that the reports in the media had only skimmed the surface of the nightmare and struggles that Doaa had lived through in Syria and Egypt and on the Mediterranean Sea.”

The story of a survivor, Doaa, who fled Syria for Europe, written by a UN official.

The book begins in Doaa’s hometown, Daraa, a Syrian city just north of the Jordanian border. There, in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, several young boys wrote “your turn doctor” on their school wall, a reference to President Bashar al-Assad, who previously worked as an ophthalmologist for the Syrian Army. It was a prank that evolved into what has been called the worst conflict since World War II.

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In the book, readers are reminded of Fleming’s official role, with the narrative dotted with responses from the UN — some helpful to the historical context, others slightly discordant in what is otherwise a well-woven flow of an extraordinary young woman’s life. The political and historical context, however, provides a backdrop that makes Doaa’s story resonate: memories of headlines over the past six years are given deeper color and life when drawn from the perspective of Doaa. Her resilience and love for her country pervade the book.

Egypt, where her family first sought refuge, at first overflows with welcome and hospitality under President Mohamed Morsi, then shifts “overnight” into a hostile environment under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Friendly greetings turn into stares; threats and accusations of terrorism replace clothing donations and free housing.

This environment leads Doaa and her fiancé, Bassem — whose love story is one of the most compelling parts of the book — to attempt a dangerous journey to Europe. The couple share an ambition to see their country made whole again, and after deciding that a return to Syria is impossible, determine that the only way to fight for their future and their people is to start anew in Sweden.

As the couple begin to make their way to Europe in the story, Fleming explains the vast, complex underground refugee network and why a culture of impunity persists. Doaa and Bassem pay their life savings to smugglers who are found either by word of mouth or through Facebook, where advertisements for luxury yachts end up being a far cry from the rickety boats the couple take across the sea. Smugglers divide refugees into groups, leading some directly to the authorities in order to appease the law so that they can continue to operate the multimillion-dollar black market. Twice the couple are apprehended, but the smugglers still hold half of their life savings, which prompts Doaa and Bassem to try for a third time, even after two stays in prison. This time, they are allowed to board.

At sea, some 500 people are moved from boat to boat throughout the journey, a process smugglers use to thwart authorities and wear out the travelers so much that they agree to stay silent about the crew’s identities as they board a final boat. One man’s fingers are severed as boats collide in the crossing; another’s head splits open when he falls, and a woman pulls out a sewing kit to stitch the wound. When the refugees are told they are 19 hours from the Italian coast, relief sets in.

That feeling quickly dissolves when a pirate ship attacks their boat, leaving those below deck to drown and many above to be swept into the propeller blades in a scene that Doaa, wearing a life preserver, witnesses. In the next days, as Doaa struggles in the sea to keep alive Bassem and two small children placed in her care, passengers swim her way and relate their stories: why they left home, who waits in Europe, which family members have already drowned. Doaa watches almost all of them die.

“Nothing was left but wreckage, blood, corpses and a few other survivors,” Fleming writes. “She felt things moving beneath her and knew that they were people drowning, and that any moment one of them might grab her legs, pulling her under.”

Doaa’s rescue is a miracle, of course, and in a particularly distressing moment, when she is wishing for her Quran that was stolen from smugglers, a man suddenly offers her one. Somehow, the Quran survives the sea with her.

Like other migrants who have attempted the Mediterranean voyage since the refugee crisis started, Doaa’s struggles do not end at sea. She spends several days in a hospital in Greece, where a tanker that rescued her has docked. Her face is scorched from the sun and her vital organs are in an emergency state. Her story — and that of the baby, now orphaned, whose life she saved — attracts international media attention. When Fleming meets Doaa in early 2015, she is not only managing loss and trauma but also desperate to be reunited with her family and resettled in Sweden. Fleming explains how the UN brings Doaa’s family from Egypt and secures asylum for them, but not without first confronting the hurdles that Fleming herself finds appalling.

“What if none of them had to take that risk?” she asks. “What if there were a legal avenue to reach Europe from Egypt to study abroad? Why is there no massive resettlement program for Syrians — the victims of the worst war of our times?”

While some reviewers have criticized the book for not being written in Doaa’s voice, Fleming’s approach keeps the reader at a slight distance and thus provides a broader perspective than a first-person account might offer. The reader is compelled to evaluate Doaa’s experience in a more global context, a reminder that the refugee crisis is a global crisis and that the reader is a bystander.

“A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea” draws on interviews with Doaa, her family, rescue crews, doctors, other survivors, humanitarian workers in Greece and throughout Europe, journalists covering the refugee routes and others in the long link from the beginning to the end of this escape. The result is a collective story that interweaves Doaa’s strength, despair and resilience with many others in the chain.

Even after her ordeals, Doaa hangs on to hope. “One day,” she concludes, “I hope to return to Syria so I can breathe again. Even if it’s just for one day. That would be enough.”


Elizabeth Walsh is a journalist covering international politics and women’s rights. She has a master’s degree in international affairs from Sciences Po and a bachelor’s degree in literature and gender studies from the University of Virginia. She speaks English and French.

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