Memoir: Lanie Tankard’s Review of Melissa Fleming’s Memoir

by Matilda Butler on March 21, 2017

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #115 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival–The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel

by Melissa Fleming

New York: Flatiron Books

Released: January 24, 2017: hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats (274 pages).

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“As I wend to the shores I know not,
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck’d,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysteriously rolls toward me closer and closer,
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift,
A few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.”

—Walt Whitman
From “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” in Leaves of Grass

So many people seeking refuge. So many voices crying out. At last tally a year ago, war and oppression had driven more than 65 million people out of their homelands. That’s an increase of 37 million from a decade ago. More are fleeing now than at any point since World War II. More than 10 million people are stateless, meaning they are refused a nationality. Thus, they are denied basic human rights such as healthcare, jobs, or education. And by 2016, Syrians had become the largest displaced population on the globe. Our world is in pandemonium. How can all these heartbreaking tales be narrated? Is that even possible? To paraphrase Thomas Paine, these are the times that try writers’ souls.

Yet along comes a storyteller who has found a way to utilize just one powerful account in a memoir that speaks for millions, including a boatload of voices now rendered mute. Melissa Fleming is head of communications and public information at the United Nations Refugee Agency, known by its acronym UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). She listens to the stories of people seeking asylum day in and day out as she helps them find shelter in safe havens.

One tale in particular struck Fleming’s heart, so she introduced the world to Doaa Al Zamel, a teenage Syrian refugee, during a May 2015 TEDx talk to create understanding of an escalating crisis and foster empathy for the desperation that drives people from their homelands. Then Fleming deployed her reporting, interviewing, and research skills to swathe Doaa’s memories in a memoir published the beginning of this year. A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea chronicles Doaa’s life in such a way that it becomes an allegory, a symbolic representation of the sanctuary seekers of our era.

How did nineteen-year-old Doaa Al Zamel end up adrift for days in the middle of a bitter cold sea on a child’s blow-up swimming-pool ring amidst the wreckage of her overcrowded ship, surrounded by the floating corpses of her fellow passengers—clutching two tiny children not her own? What circumstances drive someone to embark on such a perilous journey?

Doaa and her family (parents, two younger sisters, and a little brother) had reluctantly come to Egypt seeking a peaceful life until the mayhem in their beloved homeland of Syria improved. Shortly after they arrived, however, the Egyptian government was overthrown. Refugees were no longer welcome. Egyptians told them: “You came to ruin us. You are feeding off us.” Schools tried to force them out.

While describing this upheaval, Fleming weaves in Doaa’s courtship by a Syrian opposition fighter named Bassem. After the two become engaged, they look across “the vast sea” for a better life, since Syria is still too dangerous for them to return. Doaa, who can’t swim, is afraid of the water, but the situation in Egypt finally deteriorates to the point where she agrees to brave the crossing. Their goal is to reach Sweden. As the memoir title underscores, her hope was more powerful than the sea.

Fleming’s research fleshes out Doaa’s tale, placing it in the context of world events, local geography, and interviews with others. Writers might take note of Fleming’s methods for creating a memoir to showcase an individual story that represents many others. Doaa entrusts Fleming with her memories not only because she needs help resettling in another country after the boat tragedy and reuniting with her family, but also because she wants to warn others who might try the same perilous voyage.

Doaa watched her fiancé drown after struggling in the water for several days. She witnessed horror on the faces of those around her in the water as they realized the life vests they had just bought were filled with trashy material that would not keep them afloat. Some people amass fortunes from the misfortunes of others. The vest manufacturers would turn a profit on their sales. So would the smugglers, who cleared over a million dollars from the five hundred refugees (one hundred of whom were children) on that cruise from Egypt aboard a decrepit fishing boat way too small for that many people.

The craft would never reach shore, however, because ten angry men in another vessel rammed it repeatedly until it sank, as they screamed hate at the refugees: “You dogs! … You should’ve stayed to die in your own country.” Only a handful of passengers survived. How do they make it to land? What happens to them next? A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea covers the entire timespan.

Brava, esteem, and honor to Doaa Al Zamel, whose story serves as a lighthouse beacon on a dark shore. Kudos to Melissa Fleming, who states “most of the proceeds of this book will be donated to support refugees.” This heartbreakingly insightful memoir shines a guiding light on one of the most urgent catastrophes of our time, asking crucial questions. How long can all these people around the globe stay afloat? A powerful surge of hope will continue to pull them to the sea. Where will they find refuge?


Lanie-Tankard-2015Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.


Want to learn more? Here’s is Melissa Fleming’s TED Talk.


NOTE: Lanie Tankard just informed me that filmmakers are apparently looking at the story. Here’s a link to a February 1 article from The Hollywood Reporter. You will want to read Fleming’s book before the movie is made.

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