When I met Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, almost three years ago, neither of us privileged Americans thought our own president would enact an all-out ban on Syrian refugees. Yet just a little over a week into his presidency, Trump has issued an executive order on immigration that has ignited not only deep societal, existential rifts, but an all-out political and legal crisis. The order has suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days and blocked citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, refugees or otherwise, from entering the United States for 90 days: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
I've been reporting on the Syrian-refugee crisis for the past five years. While I knew how difficult it was for a Syrian to get asylum in the United States, I had clung to a certain American exceptionalism. In the midst of the worst humanitarian refugee crisis of modern history, I wanted to believe that my country would take in the wretched refuse of the teeming shore. "You have to understand," Somali-British Warsan Shire in her poem "Home" wrote: "No one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land."
Over the past three years, I've looked to Melissa as a mentor and friend, often discussing how we can best humanize the millions who have been relegated to mere numbing numbers. As the chief spokesman for the UNHCR — the UN agency that handles refugees — Melissa does everything from helping to coordinate Angelina Jolie's visits to refugee camps to reminding high-level delegations, educators, and others about the almost 60 million people who are currently displaced from their homes — the most since WWII.
Here's another horrifying statistic: about one-sixth of those refugees are Syrians. Approximately 11 million have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011. How do we remind people of our shared humanity? How do we get people to realize that their stories are really our stories?
In a week marked by darkness, Fleming's new book A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea does just that. It tells the story of Doaa Al Zameel, a Syrian refugee whose journey to Europe reads like something from a dystopian Hollywood film.
On Monday I spoke with Melissa over Skype in the United States, where we both are currently visiting our families. What an incredible privilege. As Americans, we have the right to travel freely; to live in our adopted cities of Vienna and Istanbul; respectively; to go to Jordan, to go to Lebanon and Iraq and interview incredible human beings with hardly any paperwork involved. We spent the snowy Monday chatting about the current state of affairs (spoiler alert: we don't have many answers for you), why there are no massive resettlement programs for the victims of the worst war of our time, and about Melissa's own confrontation with mortality.
We got off our Skype conversation feeling depressed af, but ultimately hopeful. Here's why.
LB: Tell us about Doaa.
MF: I've listened to so many horrific stories of people fleeing for their lives. But there's one story that really kept me awake at night — and that's Doaa's story.
In 2011, Doaa was only fifteen years old. She was a shy girl, living in Daraa [a city in southern Syria], the birthplace of the Syrian revolution. She, like many youth, demonstrated against the regime. Things became too dangerous for her in Syria, so she fled to Egypt, where she tried to survive by stitching bags in a factory. Her life was difficult in Egypt, and like many, she dreamed of taking a boat to Europe. In Egypt, she fell in love with another Syrian refugee, named Bassem. They got engaged and decided to hop on a small boat together from Egypt, hoping to reach Europe.
Fast-forward to September 2014. Doaa is being rescued from the Mediterranean, accompanied by two small children [not her own, named Masa and Malak] who were basically put under her protection. She had been floating at sea for four days after her small smuggling boat to Europe sank. Five hundred other passengers were killed, including her beloved Bassem.