More than 70 babies have drowned since the fragile body of 4-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on Turkish shores last month. The outrage over the loss of his young life faded all too soon, but the drive to keep the world focused on the continuing tragedy has not.
One person who vows not to let the world forget about what has become the biggest refugee crisis since World War II is Melissa Fleming, a 51-year-old American who is the chief communications and spokeswoman for the United Nations Refugee Agency. She says she ends and begins every day obsessing over the human stories about refugees that she can share with the world in hopes someone is listening. On Friday, she tweeted a horrific video of a dying baby being given CPR. The day before, she tweeted a body count. “Dozens missing after refugee boat sinks off Lesvos. 11 dead. Kids! All in one terrible day.”
“What kills me is that even the biggest tragedies are headline news for just one day,” she told The Daily Beast. “My family reminds me I am obsessed, but I have to be. I get a report several times a day on statistics, which, to me, are human beings with the tears dried off. The stories that kill me the most are when I hear about a mother or father losing a child to the waves. As a mother myself, to lose them this way is incomprehensible.”
Fleming has had high-profile jobs before, but none have touched her like working for UNHCR. She was spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and then for the International Atomic Energy Agency, but there, she says, the disasters were looming. “Then it was about preventing hypothetical situations that could kill thousands,” she says. “Now it is about dealing with real disasters.”
One story in particular, that of a young Syrian woman named Doaa who was one of 11 survivors on a shipwreck near Crete and who saved a baby that was not her own, stuck out among the many tragedies Fleming has dealt with. Fleming is writing a book about the woman’s life because she says each chapter of her life represents a facet of the refugee struggle, from the moment someone decides to leave their country to finally, hopefully, settling somewhere safe.
“She was on one of those awful shipwrecks of the gazillion shipwrecks about this time last year, when 500 people on a boat were deliberately rammed,” she said. “She was the only woman of 11 people who survived and she saved a little baby by floating on the water for four days. She watched as her fiancé died, and at one time she had four children on her who the parents handed her as they went under the waves.”
The story haunts Fleming. “It is the tragedy and the love,” she says. “Every single chapter in her story tells a bigger story of what is really happening.”
But what bothers her most about Doaa’s story is that all those other people who died on that ship are just gone. “We have no idea who the rest of the people are,” she says. When Doaa’s contacts were made public, she got hundreds of messages from family members of people who were on the sunken ship who were asking about their sister, mother, brother, or husband. Finally, the family of the baby she saved contacted her and Doaa was able to tell them the baby had survived.
Fleming thinks that the world has a hard time paying attention to the refugee tragedies because people just can’t relate to the journey these people take. “There is something about the irregularity of the journey that people can’t identify with,” she says. “They can identify with a disaster because they can imagine if they are going on a cruise liner or on an airliner over Switzerland, but they just can’t relate to this type of travel.”
She worries that even as Europe is coming to terms with the refugee crisis at their borders, the lack of cohesive policy will spell further disaster for many. “All across Europe there is a panic because nobody was prepared for this,” she says.
“The numbers are just overwhelming and Europe is certainly not united. At every state of the journey there are huge dangers and huge challenges.”
“As a communicator, I seek out the stories of the individuals, I encourage my colleagues to find people and talk to them a lot, and to understand what they are going through and tell that story,” she says. “In Europe, there is divide between compassion on one side and fear on the other. And that’s worrying.”
Last week, Fleming tweeted a picture of herself with an 8-year-old Syrian she met in Vienna who had asked her, “Can I go to school? Can I go to your house? Can my father come here, too?” Fleming says she still keeps thinking about her because she was right around the corner from where she lives. “I told her she will be able to go to school, which is true. I told her that things will be better and that soon she will have a house,” Fleming says. “Maybe not the one she imagined, and hopefully there is a system that will allow for her father to come join her.”
“You try to reassure these kids, and on one hand they are looking to you with this raw look that says, ‘I need you’ and they are hugging you, on the other hand, they don’t trust anyone anymore,” Fleming says. “You have the combination in one little person. You see the kids are the most resilient and most hopeful.”
She says UNHCR has warned that unless the world invests in the children now there will be a lost generation. “Even if you don’t care about them, they are the future of a volatile situation,” she says. “It would be really smart to have a population of educated children who have gotten over their trauma and go back and rebuild their nation.”
Fleming also credits the scores of volunteers who have come to the aid of the refugees like a group of lifeguards from Barcelona to divers who wait on the Greek shores to rescue those in need. She says it is hard not to think about the refugees and those rescuing them all the time. “It’s hard,” she says. “I get up and I look at the weather report and not for how I plan my day, it is to worry about how the refugees along the journey are faring.”
So far this year, more than 700,000 people have made the sea crossing to Greece or Italy. Most are Syrian, Afghan and Eritrean refugees fleeing war and direct threat to life. More than 8,000 arrive every single day on the Greek island of Lesbos—the closest to Turkey where the shores are littered with personal effects, life jackets and all too often, bodies. As many as 1 million more people are believed to be waiting in dire conditions to make the passage. They may all try, but sadly they almost certainly won’t all make it.