Melissa Fleming is the Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson for the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and one of the world's experts on refugees. In A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea, she tells the story of a young Syrian refugee, Doaa Al Zamel. Doaa was born in Daraa, Syria, but she was forced to flee after President Bashar al-Assad's troops invaded the city. Her family moved to Egypt, where Doaa met and fell in love with Bassem, another Syrian refugee. The two became engaged and decided to move to Europe in search of a better life. Together, they join thousands of refugees on a perilous journey across Mediterranean on overcrowded ships. After four days at sea, their boat was sunk by another vessel, and Doaa was left adrift at sea with a child's inflatable water ring across her waist and two little girls clinging to her body. In the below passage from the book, Doaa and Bassem begin their terrifying journey from Egypt to Europe.
“Please look after yourselves. Call when you arrive. We will be worrying about you every minute,” Hanaa told them as the situation suddenly became more real to her. “Are you sure you don’t want to change your minds? Bassem, you can come live with us. Please don’t go!” Hanaa had been trying to be brave for Doaa, but was now overcome with fear for her daughter and future son-in-law.
Doaa tried to reason with her. “Mom, nothing will change here.” Doaa fought to control her tears and steady her voice with determination. “It is never going to get any better. We have made up our minds,” she said resolutely.
Then, nine-year-old Hamudi turned to Bassem and demanded with his hands on his hips, “Why don’t you go by yourself and leave Doaa here? I’m going to miss her.”
“It is never going to get any better. We have made up our minds,” she said resolutely.
Doaa smiled and hugged Hamudi again. “Don’t worry, once I get to Europe, I’ll bring you there, too, and we will be all together and things will be much better.”
Finally, in the dark, Doaa and Bassem turned and walked away from Doaa’s family toward a dim street corner where the two other Syrian families were waiting. After some time a small white bus pulled up, and a large, barbaric-looking man, who was unshaven and dressed in all black, stepped out and ordered them to board, joining about thirty other people already on the bus, seated on top of each other to fit in. No kindness or welcome was in his voice. Doaa sat on Bassem’s lap and rested her arms on the duffel bag. No one on the bus spoke, but they nodded to the newcomers in solidarity.
As the bus took off, Doaa whispered to Bassem under her breath, “These smugglers are thugs, Bassem. I don’t trust them and they frighten me.” Bassem tried to reassure her that it would all be okay, even though this was not what the smuggler who had sold them the journey had promised.
One of the smugglers made his way down the aisle. He was smaller than the man who had told them to board, but he was also dressed head to toe in black and spoke just as harshly. Noticing Doaa, he barked at her, “What do you have in your bag?”
“These smugglers are thugs, Bassem. I don’t trust them and they frighten me.”
“Just some clothes and dates and water, as we were told,” Doaa replied timidly.
He nodded. “Keep your passport with you at all times, and hide it in your clothes.” Then he moved on and repeated the same question and command to the next row.
After what seemed like an hour, the minibus came to a halt and they were ordered to get off. The group was immediately herded into the back of a large truck meant for transporting sand. While it was dark outside, it was pitch-black in the container once the smugglers closed the back hatch, sealing them in. Everyone was crammed together with no room to move, no windows, and no air circulation. The children were strangely quiet, and Doaa noticed that one woman was visibly pregnant. “These thugs are inhuman,” Doaa whispered under her breath. “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
Doaa and Bassem could tell from the noise of honking horns, music, and voices that the truck was traveling through populated areas, but after a while the only sound was of the wheels bumping up against potholes and stones. Doaa held Bassem’s hand as she peered through the darkness at her fellow refugees, wondering what circumstances had driven each of them to embark on this dangerous journey. After an hour, the truck halted abruptly, and the back hatch opened. Doaa gratefully gulped the fresh air. She was stiff from sitting squeezed up against the other people, and her legs shook as she jumped down from the truck and discovered that they had arrived at a barren coast. Other refugees had arrived before them, clustered in groups of families or friends, sitting in the sand and waiting silently in the dark.
She was stiff from sitting squeezed up against the other people, and her legs shook as she jumped down from the truck and discovered that they had arrived at a barren coast.
Including the forty other passengers from Doaa and Bassem’s truck, they estimated that about two hundred people were gathered on the beach, now at the mercy of their ten criminal travel agents. The smugglers were all barefoot and dressed in black with their pant legs rolled up to their knees. They told the refugees to remain completely silent and explained that they were doing everything they could to evade the police and the coast guard, but by many accounts, they were also paying off officials to turn a blind eye to the smuggling. Doaa checked her watch. It was 11:00 p.m.
The wait in silence was excruciating. It was cold and she wished that she had worn a sweater under her thin jacket.
After two hours, the smugglers divided the refugees on the beach into three smaller groups without explanation. One hundred people were in the first group, with the second and third groups having fifty each. Doaa and Bassem were in the first group. As soon as it was formed, they heard a smuggler shout, “Run!” Bassem picked up their bag and together they set off in the black night toward the sound of the breaking waves. It was cloudy and thus dark and difficult to see. Doaa couldn’t even see her hands as they swung in front of her as she took her steps. After a few minutes, a voice ordered them to stop running, keep quiet, then to start again. They could hear the sound of waves crashing and the heavy breathing of their fellow travelers, but they had no sense of orientation except from the smugglers who led them. Their eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but no boat was in sight.
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Instead, as they were making their way to the shore, they stumbled into a group of uniformed coastguardsmen asleep on the beach. At the sight of them, the entire group turned on their heels and ran in the opposite direction. Doaa and Bassem were running at the head of the crowd when they heard the sound of bullets and shouts of “You kilaab [dogs]! Stop!” Running faster, they shouted to the other refugees, warning them, “It’s a trap! Run!”
They could hear the sound of waves crashing and the heavy breathing of their fellow travelers, but they had no sense of orientation except from the smugglers who led them. Their eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but no boat was in sight.
Bassem took Doaa’s hand as they sprinted. Their black bag was strapped to his back, weighing him down. Doaa tried to get him to abandon it, telling him that nothing in it was worth getting shot over. “No,” he insisted, “it has all our memories inside.” Then suddenly he tripped and fell. The coastguardsmen were gaining ground behind them. Doaa pulled him up and they kept running. The group that ran with them was getting smaller. The families with children and the elderly had surrendered, unable to outpace the guards. A girl Doaa’s age was running alongside Doaa and Bassem. She had lost track of her family and wanted to stop, but Doaa took her hand, telling her, “Stay with us. We’ll help you.”
When they finally reached the main road, Doaa checked her watch again. It was 3:00 a.m.—they had been running for almost two hours. No houses were along this stretch of road, only empty desert, and soon other Syrians from their group who had escaped joined them. One was speaking in a loud voice into his phone to one of the smugglers, demanding that they come and pick them up. After the call ended, a barrage of questions ensued. Where were they? Did the smugglers set the trap intentionally, knowing that the coastguardsmen would be there? “There are always arrests,” one man said knowingly. “It allows the coast guard to show they’re doing their job. They get their cut from the smugglers for allowing part of the group to make it to the boat.”
So that’s why they divided us into groups, Doaa thought angrily.
Excerpted from A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea: One Refugee's Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival. Copyright © 2017 by Melissa Fleming. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.