At only 16 years old, Doaa al Zamel and her family were forced from their home in Daraa, Syria when the Syrian Civil War began tearing the city apart. Buildings and streets were bombarded daily and crossing the street for a loaf of bread involved going through checkpoints and ducking to avoid stray bullets from the fighting going on elsewhere in the city. When a bomb destroyed her father’s barbershop, the al Zamel family decided the time had come to flee the city for their own safety. First, they found refuge in Egypt, but following a military coup that ousted the refugee-supporting President Mohamed Morsi, the tide turned for refugees in that country. Feeling threatened by locals, Doaa and her new fiancée, Bassem, decided to risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Doaa was 19 when they finally set sail. After four days crammed onto a smugglers’ boat with more than 500 others, they were rammed and sunk by another ship. Awaiting rescue, Doaa floated in the sea for another four days while most of her fellow passengers continued to die around her. Only a handful would survive. After Bassem lost his strength and passed away, Doaa was ready to give up, too. But there were two infants, 6 and 9 months old, entrusted to her when their families couldn’t go on any longer. She held on for their sake, that they might be rescued and survive. A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming (Flatiron Books) is Doaa’s story of strength, resilience, and the power of the human spirit in times of devastating tragedy that sheds light on the Syrian refugee crisis from the point of view of one remarkable woman.
I’ve heard from the news that some people don’t want refugees in their country, especially from Syria. We’re seen as being a risk to security, thought of as terrorists. We leave behind everything we know and love because we have no other options. I think maybe people don’t know who we are which is why we’re so misunderstood. I am one of the millions of refugees that was forced to leave their home out of fear and desperation and with a broken heart. Let me tell you a little about myself so you can get to know me. My name is Doaa, I’m 21 and I come from a big family with 5 sisters and one brother. My sisters like to tease me and say I’m stubborn, and I guess I can be sometimes. I like music and fashion. I have fond memories of the rooftop in my hometown of Daraa, Syria where I would gather with my friends after school and we would dance to our favorite songs. My mother took care of our big family while my father ran a barbershop in town. When I was younger I loved helping him at his shop, sweeping up hair and giving tea to customers. He called me his “little professional,” and I dreamed that one day I could go to university and make something of myself. Then war in my country changed everything.
While my family was living in Egypt as refugees I met the love of my life: Bassem. He was Syrian as well. He was an opposition fighter who fled to Egypt after his brother was killed by security forces. The first time I met Bassem, I barely noticed him. He had a big heart and always looked after my family. I soon discovered that I was falling in love with him and when he eventually worked up the courage to ask me to marry him and I said yes. Bassem and I would go on long walks planning our wedding and talking about future together. He’d spoil me with little presents and called me ‘Dodo,’ his pet name for me. But soon we realized we did not have a future in Egypt. Finding work was difficult and as political unrest in Egypt grew, people started to turn against us refugees. We realized Egypt was no place for a future. Since we could not go back to Syria we started making plans to go to Europe. We knew the risks but we saw no other choice.
Bassem and I decided to take a boat from Egypt to Italy, and then move on to Sweden. Once there we would apply for amnesty, find jobs, and a place to live where we would hopefully be able to live together in peace. We decided to risk everything just to have the chance at a decent life and in the end Bassem paid the price for my freedom.
We handed some smugglers everything we had, including our lives. They put us on a rusty old fishing boat with 500 other men, women and children. After four days at sea our boat was rammed by a ship with angry men on it. They yelled insults at us as the boat began to sink. As people were drowning around us Bassem found a small inflatable ring and had me get in while he held on to the side to stay afloat. On day two in the sea, I noticed that Bassem was growing weaker. His skin was turning blue and it seemed like he was going mad. I wondered if we would ever be rescued when an old man swam over and handed me his 9-month-old granddaughter. Her name was Malak.
The old man knew he would not survive but thought I might and asked me to look after her in his place. I cradled Malak like she was my own and sang her lullabies whenever she started crying. But Bassem was still weak and I was trying to hold on to him while holding Malak in my arm. All of a sudden I felt Bassem slip from my hand as his body went limp and he was taken by the sea.
I was overcome with sadness and didn’t want to go on but I knew that Malak needed me. Shortly after Bassem was taken from me, a woman swam over and asked me to save her baby. Masa was 18 months old and as I held her and Malak I knew that no matter how scared, tired and heartbroken I was I needed to do everything I could to keep these two little girls alive.
After our fourth day floating on the Mediterranean we were found by a tanker ship and I thought about how it was finally over. I held out as long as I could and now Malak and Masa were with people who could help them, and I could finally join Bassem at the bottom of the sea. But then I was pulled up onto the ship with people looking after me, and soon we were on our way to Crete where even more people were waiting to help. I didn’t think this could be real life and each time I woke up I looked for Bassem, thinking this was all a nightmare.
I live in Sweden now with my family, a wonderful country that gave us refuge. But the real nightmare still replays in my head and I wonder if we had done something differently would Bassem and I still be together and living somewhere safe? I’m still sad, I still have nightmares, and I know that I will never find someone like Bassem, but I keep going for him so that his death will mean something. And I keep going out of hope. The hope that one day I and my people will be able to safely return to Syria, the country that I love.