Thursday, September 14, 2017
A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea by Melissa Fleming
Doaa Al Zamel’s story of her rescue with two small children in her care after a ship rammed her boat filled with migrants fleeing Egypt fills us with horror and disbelief. Of a boat holding 500 people, eleven survived.
Even before the cruelty of rival smugglers (I only assume that’s who they were), Doaa’s life was filled with harsh treatment and a constant threat of kidnapping or physical abuse at the hands of strangers. Forced to leave Syria as a seventeen-year-old when government forces started targeting rebellious youth in her hometown of Daraa and outright killing townspeople and dumping their bodies, Doaa was sympathetic to the rebellion. The rebellion, however, was diffuse and never allowed to develop widely before government forces came down hard.
The Al Zamel family fled through Jordan to Egypt, where they were welcomed at first by the the local populace and by the Muslim Brotherhood, who were distributing food and blankets under the protection of the Morsi government. This Egypt piece of Doaa’s journey I didn’t want to skim over: I had so many questions about why young men were constantly asking for the girls hands in marriage, unless this was meant as a jibe, a joke, or a kind of harassment. Did Egyptians perceive Syrians as wealthier, more educated, or more sophisticated? If so, why? Why did I get the impression that Doaa looked down on the Egyptian locals? Was it just a cultural distance?
When a another young Syrian expatriate, Bessem, decided upon seeing Doaa that he wanted to marry her, I started feeling that distance one does when viewing another country’s cultural norms. This is so far from acceptable in the United States, despite Bessem’s friendliness and gift-giving to the family, that I was uncomfortable with the inevitability of it all. I understand the family was under duress. That is really the only condition under which such a decision to marry that man could be acceptable. Sure enough, shortly after agitating constantly and finally getting his way, Bessem, then insisted the two of them depart Egypt for either Syria or Europe.
Doaa was emotionally coerced into accepting the decision to move, and I resent this, even from my distance of several years and many miles. That she later recalled this man as the great love of her life shows us how circumstances change perceptions. I resent that change in her emotional landscape, and can’t help but see it as a kind of dishonesty. However, placed next to all the other things in her experience, a kind of fake love is surely least awful. She had a horrific experience getting to Europe, and deserves all the support she can get. Or handle, really. When many countries combine their attention, it can be another kind of overwhelming horror.
Doaa’s story reminds us how fragile is our careful calm construction of a life, and how easily it can be disrupted through no fault of our own. I recognize Doaa’s insistence that her destination be Sweden, despite Greece offering her a stipend and citizenship. Sweden was the original goal, and the confusion she, all alone, must have felt when all her constraints suddenly fell away must have been monumental. Now that she has many choices, instead of one uncertain one, which should she choose? Fleming’s retelling of Doaa’s options allows us to feel those uncertainties along with her.
During all Doaa went through, she must have asked herself repeatedly if in fact she and Bessem really had “no choice” but to attempt a migrant illegal crossing. As sorry as I am for what their situation was in Egypt, I would have to conclude that in fact, it was their hope for a better, more prosperous existence with more opportunity that led them to attempt the crossing, not once but three times.
They had a choice. After all, their parents and family stayed in Egypt. I understand conditions were bad in Egypt. I understand they had limited understanding of what went on outside their circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. But I am not sure they have the right to attempt to move to another country just because they want what that country offers its citizens.
What reasonable people must ask themselves is how they can help communities torn apart by war or natural disaster. This kind of migration is humanity’s problem. It doesn’t have to be as deadly as it is at the moment. There may be solutions that address the root issues and do not require the kind of dangerous, deadly journey that Doaa passed through. In some ways her story tells of a kind of grim lottery. If one makes it through the gantlet of death, all kinds of benefits are bestowed upon one.
That viewpoint, however, doesn’t take into account Doaa’s personal bravery to engage the world in this critical conversation about the best way to pursue one’s dreams. I’m quite sure she would rather have not gone through that horror, but sometimes we have…no choice.
Doaa's story was translated twice, from Arabic to Greek and from Greek to English, before it became this book. This fact lends a little distance to the narrative that one must overcome to get at the real experience of this woman and millions like her. The really difficult task of organizing the material fell to Melissa Fleming, and of asking questions that readers like us wanted to know.
I was especially grateful for her including things someone speaking of their own experience may not have included, e.g., what was the composition of the migrants on the boat, their ages and country of origin, who were the ones who rammed the boat (we never learned who they were, but their manner and words were included), the manner the ship went down, and all her time in Egypt, information which was supplemented by interviews with Doaa's mother and sisters. Doaa probably couldn't have done that on her own so soon after her ordeal.
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