How a teen refugee survived a shipwreck and saved a baby's life
UNHCR's Melissa Fleming launched "A Hope More Powerful than the Sea", her book chronicling the extraordinary bravery of Syrian refugee Doaa Al Zamel.
Doaa al Zamel, who saw her fiancé and hundreds of passengers die at sea, but rescued a small child, is the subject of "A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea".
© Elena Dorfman
“I feel like we are being taken to our deaths,” Doaa told Bassem.
At 11 p.m., they came to a halt about half a kilometer from a barren, sandy beach. “Get out and run to the shore!” the smugglers shouted. They filed out and noticed other buses, and hundreds of people ahead of and behind them. Bassem kicked off his flip-flops, took Doaa’s hand, and they sprinted toward the water.
One of two wooden dinghies, about three-and-a-half-meters long, was moving toward them, but to reach it, they had to struggle through breaking waves until the water was up to Bassem’s shoulders. They reached the dinghy, and Bassem pulled himself over the side while a smuggler lifted Doaa in.
Hundreds of people were already on the boat when Doaa and Bassem climbed on deck. They soon learned that a good number of these weary looking travelers had already been drifting at sea for days, impatiently waiting for Doaa and Bassem’s group to join them so the smugglers could fill every square inch of the trawler.
It was late afternoon on their third day when a double-decker boat approached. One of the smugglers explained that the waves were too high for so many people so they had to split up the group. About 150 others disembarked with Doaa and Bassem. They had been told the trip would take two days at most, and nearly four days had already passed. “How much longer?” someone asked the new captain. “Just 19 hours, and we will reach Italy,” the captain reassured them. The passengers cheered and clapped in response, calling out “Hamdullah, God willing, we will make it to Italy!”
But just hours later, Doaa was napping when the sounds of an engine and men shouting insults in an Egyptian dialect startled her awake. A blue fishing boat approached them at full speed. Doaa could see about 10 men on board, dressed in ordinary clothes, not the all-black outfits of the smugglers.
“You dogs!” they shouted. “Sons of bitches! Stop the boat! Where do you think you are going? You should’ve stayed to die in your own country.”
Then, all of a sudden, they began hurling planks of wood at the passengers on the refugee boat, their eyes wild with hatred. Doaa stared in horror as the boat sped toward them.
There was a scramble for life jackets, as desperate prayers were interrupted by terrified shouts and children crying. The boat approaching them accelerated and rammed into the side of the boat just below where Doaa and Bassem were standing, producing a shriek of metal and shattering wood.
The impact was so sharp and sudden, it felt like a missile strike. Doaa stumbled forward, almost falling over the railing before Bassem’s arms shot out and grabbed her. Other people weren’t so lucky and fell over, landing on the hard deck and other passengers below. In the commotion, Doaa had dropped her life vest. She was scrambling around looking for it when Bassem pulled her toward him. She then realized that the boat was beginning to turn on its side. Oh, God, Doaa thought. Not the water. Not drowning. Let me die now and not go into the sea.
The attackers sped toward them again, and when they rammed the side of Bassem and Doaa’s boat, the rickety vessel took a sudden, violent nosedive into the sea. Bassem’s hand was yanked away from Doaa’s as he fought to regain his balance, and she lost sight of him in the mass of people tumbling forward.
Half of their boat was already underwater and sinking fast. Doaa thought of the hundreds of people trapped in the hull. They’re doomed, she thought as she held on to the edge of the sinking vessel, and so are we.
She heard screaming all around her, muffled only by the sound of the boat’s motor. People desperately grabbed onto anything that floated — luggage, water canisters, even other people, pulling them down with them. Doaa noticed that the sea around her was red and soon realized that people were being sucked into the boat’s propeller and dismembered by its blades.
Overwhelmed with panic and fear, Doaa began shouting for Bassem. A few long seconds later, she heard his voice.
She turned her head toward the sound and spotted him in the sea. She wanted to go to him but couldn’t bring herself to jump into the water. The boat was sinking at an angle that was drawing her toward the spinning propeller. “Let go, or it will cut you up too!” Bassem cried out.
“Put this over your head so you can float.”
She closed her eyes and opened her hands, falling backward, arms and legs spread as she hit the water. She was buoyant for a few seconds on her back, then she felt someone pulling at her headscarf, which slipped off her head.
As she lay floating on her back, she felt her long hair being yanked under the water. Those who were drowning below were grabbing at whatever they could to try to pull themselves to the surface. They pulled Doaa’s face below the water, but somehow she managed to push their hands away.
Then she spotted Bassem swimming toward her holding a blue floating ring, the kind toddlers use in baby pools. “Put this over your head so you can float,” he said as he passed her the partially inflated ring.
The refugee boat hero who saved a child and stirred a continent | Melissa Fleming | TEDxThessaloniki
Of the 150 people who had been onboard, somewhere between 50 and 100 survived the attack and were left floating aimlessly in the sea.
When the sun rose the next day, it was clear to Doaa that the night had taken at least half of the initial survivors. A small group of those remaining gathered around Bassem and Doaa, treading water.
This story is an excerpt from A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming. Copyright ©Melissa Fleming/Flatiron Books.