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A Hope More Powerful than the Sea

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A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea. Melissa Fleming. 274 pp. Flatiron Books, 2017.

By Erin Ensinger

Adjunct Professor, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences

March 22, 2017


Last week, while Cairn students headed home for spring break, Syrians marked the sixth anniversary of a civil war that has killed over 250,000 and left over half the country without homes. The numbers are so large that they all too easily lose their meaning. I can’t picture what 5 million – the number of Syrian refugees abroad – looks like. I can’t hold 6.5 million – the number of Syrians displaced inside their own country – in my hand.

But when I read A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea, I came face-to-face with Doaa Al Zamel, a nineteen-year-old Syrian woman who survived four days in the Mediterranean, kept afloat only by a toddler’s inflatable water ring and by her fierce need to protect the two infants left in her care. Like me, Doaa is an introvert, a hater a change, someone who would rather stay with “the people who understood her without having to try” than make new friends (16). But love for her country transformed quiet Doaa into a rebel when Bashaar al-Assad’s military tanks confronted the peaceful protesters marching the streets of her town. Like me, Doaa had dreams of being the first female in her family to graduate from university, but those dreams were obliterated when her family’s home was destroyed. Like me, Doaa’s faith in her God was her refuge always, but she trusted unquestioningly even when her possessions, her family and her future had all been wrested from her.

While author Melissa Fleming deftly portrays Doaa as a fully-developed character rather than a faceless refugee among the millions, she also outlines the developments of the Syrian war in an accessible way for any who have lost track of its twists and turns over the last half a decade. Fleming, who is the chief spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reminds us that the unthinkable carnage was sparked by a group of adolescent boys spraying graffiti on a wall. She traces how this simple prank escalated into a hopelessly complicated disaster as extremist groups seized their opportunity to gain property and power, straining the Free Syrian Army’s resources to the breaking point. She also highlights how sympathy towards the refugees easily turned to suspicion, forcing families like Doaa’s to flee from the countries where they had sought safe haven.

Fleming’s work illuminated the refugees’ plight for me in a way that no 30-second sound bite on the evening news ever could. I had never seriously considered the peril refugees face when placing their lives in the hands of illegal smugglers or the struggle to find a new sense of purpose when they finally reach safety. And while our news media does capture some of the horror besieging the refugees, it misses something perhaps even more important – the human compassion that no brutal regime can entirely eradicate. In Fleming’s telling, nearly every instance of astounding cruelty is answered with a simple act of kindness that salves the sting, from the soldiers who helped Doaa’s family get food while her hometown was occupied to the smuggler who offered her a Quran to bolster her spirits during the sea voyage.   

These examples of transcendent kindness made me reflect in new ways on what it means to be human, yet a more haunting question echoed in my mind as I closed the book. “But I have to ask, why did Doaa have to risk her life…to finally arrive at this place of refuge and opportunity?” (258) In the same year that Doaa almost lost her life sailing to Europe, over 2,500 other refugees and migrants perished attempting the same voyage. Why indeed? At a time when our country is ruptured over the refugee crisis, Fleming’s book awakens our consciences to an awareness of the precious human souls submerged beneath the statistics.

Listen to NPR’s interview with the author at: http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2017/01/26/melissa-fleming-a-hope-more-powerful-than-the-sea/

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