When Doaa Al Zamel was 16 years old, she and her family fled their home in Daraa, Syria as war began tearing the city apart. For a few years, the Al Zamel family found refuge in Egypt, but living conditions worsened with political developments. In 2014, Doaa and her new fiancé, Bassem, decided to risk the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe. Doaa was 19.

Doaa Al Zamel with Melissa Fleming, the Chief Spokesperson for UNHCR

As Doaa recalls: “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.”

Chaos ensued as passengers fought for their lives in the icy sea which turned red from the dismembered bodies of those who had been caught in the boat’s propellers. Doaa remembers: “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.”

Awaiting rescue, Doaa floated helplessly in the sea while hundreds of people perished around her. Bassem eventually lost his strength and drowned.

Shortly after Bassem died, a woman swam up to Doaa, asking her to take her 18-month-old baby, Masa.

After having keynoted at an event in Vienna, Austria in September 2018

Doaa says, “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 four days in brutal conditions, the few remaining survivors were discovered and taken to safety. Malak died aboard the rescue ship. Of the original 500 passengers, only 11 survived.

Doaa was immediately credited with having saved the life of little Masa.           

After hearing of this incredible case, Melissa Fleming, the Chief Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), met with Doaa and then wrote the inspiring account: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival. Published by Flatiron Books in 2017, the book has been translated into numerous languages and won multiple awards. A corresponding film from Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams is in development.

Doaa and some of her family members were eventually reunited in Sweden, thanks to the resettlement program of UNHCR. Unfortunately, as is the case for many refugee families, Doaa remains separated from her other siblings who remain scattered in different countries and without the legal right to travel.

Doaa has gone on to receive acclaim, such as from the Academy of Athens in 2014 and the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) in 2016. She is a sought-after speaker on refugee topics.