Book Review: ‘A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea’ by Melissa Fleming
Special to the Daily
The Syrian conflict has played out in searing images of horror and heartbreak for six years, from the graphic footage of the recent chemical attacks to the unforgettable pictures of a young, blood-covered boy sitting in shock in the back of an ambulance. Few can forget the gut-wrenching image of Alan Kurdi, a child lying face down in the surf on a Turkish beach, his life ending on a shore far from home. The stories behind these photographs are complex and each represents a real life. Often, though, they are treated as little more than political footballs, kicked around by those in power as they seek elusive solutions to what is shaping up to be the most overwhelming refugee crisis since World War II.
To begin to understand the suffering of those trying to flee the Syrian war, it helps to follow the full arc of an individual’s experience, something author Melissa Fleming has done to great effect with her new book, “A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea: The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel.”
The story of the young Syrian woman captured Fleming’s attention because Al Zamel represented a rarity — someone who looked certain death in the eye and lived, to not only tell her tale, but to gain the admiration of the world for her singular heroism that saved the life of a child who seemed destined to have a tragic ending, much like that of Kurdi.
What makes Fleming’s book so riveting is the care with which she handles Al Zamel’s unforgettable, exceedingly painful and ultimately uplifting story. Fleming pulls aside the curtain on the chaotic and complicated news headlines from the conflict and instead focuses in on this one Syrian woman, whose story “is the story of millions who live in limbo waiting for asylum and watching the news of the fighting back home. It’s also the story of international powers becoming entangled in regional rivalries and how they are either unable or unwilling to stop the war.”
Before she faced the deadly waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Al Zamel lived as many of her fellow Syrians did, longing for a peaceful country in which a living could be made and basic human dignities could be respected. Though most Syrians watched with hope as the Arab Spring bloomed in nations all across the Middle East, it became apparent that their country would not share the same chances of reform and reinvention.
Just as the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia sparked the revolution, a singular act —and Bashar-al-Assad’s brutal response — triggered the downward spiral of Syria. Some teens defiantly painted anti-government graffiti on their school, which “they knew might anger the security forces, but they never imagined their small action would provoke a revolution of Syria’s own and lead to a civil war that would divide and destroy the country.”
The backlash was swift, and protests mounted in response to the harsh torture to which the young boys were subjected. Like other countries that had led the way toward reform, regime change became the ultimate goal. But no one could foresee the lengths to which their merciless leader would go to hold on to control of the country.
Soon, Al Zamel’s city, Daraa, found itself under siege, with both the water and electricity shut off. Food became scarce, and violence was undisciplined and indiscriminate. It soon became clear their world would never be the same.
Al Zamel learned “to gauge the mood of the city by the number of bullet casings she found on the street in front of her house each morning.” Even a simple trip to the bakery became a perilous journey, from which there was no guarantee of return.
Though leaving their beloved city was heartbreaking, the family reached the painful decision to flee once the bombs started dropping. The goal was Egypt, through Jordan, and their journey was only possible because of the generosity of family members, for it was known that border crossing officials and smugglers grew rich on the desperation of refugees fleeing trauma.
Initially welcomed by the Egyptian authorities, the political climate soon soured and so too did the kind words and the aid.
“What had once been a country of refuge was now just one more place of menace for Doaa and her family.” Syrian women, in particular, became targets for attack, and it was unsafe to be on the streets. In spite of finding love to dampen the hardships, Al Zamel grew ill and depressed, longing for her beloved Syria. Her health worsened, and Egypt was a dead end. Returning to what was left of Syria was also not an option, and her fiancé convinced her that fleeing to Europe was the only way for them to have any chance at a future.
Al Zamel was deathly afraid of water, and she had never learned to swim, so agreeing to such a choice was no small feat, even if it hadn’t also meant that she would most likely never see her mother or father or siblings again. As the dreaded boat journey unfolds, Fleming’s tense and immediate writing makes the refugees’ fear palpable, and the reader gets a real sense of what they face as they made a desperate dash for a better life.
The pace of the book ratchets up as the escape from Egypt commences. The realities that unfold are often painful to read, but the narrative is unmatched as a powerful illustration to the world of the need for a global solution to the increasing refugee crisis.
Fleming’s book should take a place alongside such compelling novels as Elie Wiesel’s “Night” or Blaine Harden’s “Escape From Camp 14.” Al Zamel’s story will linger in your mind and take hold in your heart, as will a longing for safe passage for all those innocents who flee from war and deprivation.
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