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Video: A Boat Carrying 500 Refugees Sunk at Sea. The Story of Two Survivors

Aboard an overloaded ship carrying more than 500 refugees, a young woman becomes an unlikely hero. This single, powerful story, told by Melissa Fleming of the UN’s refugee agency, gives a human face to the sheer numbers of human beings trying to escape to better lives… as the refugee ships keep coming.

Running time: 19 minutes

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Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications at the United Nations, calls on all of us to think of refugees as more than just temporary guests, languishing in limbo and waiting for the war to end back home. Rather, they should receive education, training and work, enabling them to triumph over their trauma and become agents of positive change and social transformation. 

Fleming notes that more than 82 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are more than 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18. But she believes that citing statistics to illustrate human suffering only leaves people numb. Instead, she tells the compelling human stories to reach people’s hearts and stir them to help. 

Fleming’s 2017 book A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea was born out of the story of a young Syrian refugee, Doaa Al Zamel, who survived one of the worst refugee shipwrecks on the Mediterranean Sea, saving a baby girl.

Syrian refugee Doaa al-Zamel, one of the few survivors of a deadly boat journey across the Mediterranean. Photograph: Makis Kartsonakis/AFP



Every day, I listen to harrowing stories of people fleeing for their lives, across dangerous borders and unfriendly seas. But there’s one story that keeps me awake at night, and it’s about Doaa.


A Syrian refugee, 19 years old, she was living a grinding existence in Egypt working day wages. Her dad was constantly thinking of his thriving business back in Syria that had been blown to pieces by a bomb. And the war that drove them there was still raging in its fourth year. And the community that once welcomed them therehad become weary of them. And one day, men on motorcycles tried to kidnap her. Once an aspiring student thinking only of her future, now she was scared all the time.


But she was also full of hope, because she was in love with a fellow Syrian refugee named Bassem. Bassem was also struggling in Egypt, and he said to Doaa, “Let’s go to Europe; seek asylum, safety. I will work, you can study — the promise of a new life.” And he asked her father for her hand in marriage.


But they knew to get to Europe they had to risk their lives, traveling across the Mediterranean Sea, putting their hands in smugglers’, notorious for their cruelty. And Doaa was terrified of the water. She always had been. She never learned to swim.


It was August that year, and already 2,000 people had died trying to cross the Mediterranean, but Doaa knew of a friend who had made it all the way to Northern Europe, and she thought, “Maybe we can, too.” So she asked her parents if they could go, and after a painful discussion, they consented, and Bassem paid his entire life savings — 2,500 dollars each — to the smugglers.


It was a Saturday morning when the call came, and they were taken by bus to a beach, hundreds of people on the beach. They were taken then by small boats onto an old fishing boat, 500 of them crammed onto that boat, 300 below, [200] above. There were Syrians, Palestinians, Africans, Muslims and Christians, 100 children, including Sandra — little Sandra, six years old — and Masa, 18 months. There were families on that boat, crammed together shoulder to shoulder, feet to feet. Doaa was sitting with her legs crammed up to her chest, Bassem holding her hand.


Day two on the water, they were sick with worry and sick to their stomachs from the rough sea.


Day three, Doaa had a premonition. And she said to Bassem, “I fear we’re not going to make it. I fear the boat is going to sink.” And Bassem said to her, “Please be patient. We will make it to Sweden, we will get married and we will have a future.”


Day four, the passengers were getting agitated. They asked the captain, “When will we get there?” He told them to shut up, and he insulted them. He said, “In 16 hours we will reach the shores of Italy.” They were weak and weary. Soon they saw a boat approach — a smaller boat, 10 men on board, who started shouting at them, hurling insults, throwing sticks, asking them to all disembark and get on this smaller, more unseaworthy boat. The parents were terrified for their children, and they collectively refused to disembark. So the boat sped away in anger, and a half an hour later, came back and started deliberately ramming a hole in the side of Doaa’s boat, just below where she and Bassem were sitting. And she heard how they yelled, “Let the fish eat your flesh!” And they started laughing as the boat capsized and sank.


The 300 people below deck were doomed. Doaa was holding on to the side of the boat as it sank, and watched in horror as a small child was cut to pieces by the propeller. Bassem said to her, “Please let go, or you’ll be swept in and the propeller will kill you, too.” And remember — she can’t swim. But she let go and she started moving her arms and her legs, thinking, “This is swimming.” And miraculously, Bassem found a life ring. It was one of those child’s rings that they use to play in swimming pools and on calm seas.And Doaa climbed onto the ring, her arms and her legs dangling by the side. Bassem was a good swimmer, so he held her hand and tread water. Around them there were corpses. Around 100 people survived initially, and they started coming together in groups, praying for rescue. But when a day went by and no one came,some people gave up hope, and Doaa and Bassem watched as men in the distance took their life vests off and sank into the water.


One man approached them with a small baby perched on his shoulder, nine months old — Malek. He was holding onto a gas canister to stay afloat, and he said to them, “I fear I am not going to survive. I’m too weak. I don’t have the courage anymore.” And he handed little Malek over to Bassem and to Doaa, and they perched her onto the life ring. So now they were three, Doaa, Bassem and little Malek.


And let me take a pause in this story right here and ask the question: why do refugees like Doaa take these kinds of risks?Millions of refugees are living in exile, in limbo. They’re living in countries [fleeing] from a war that has been raging for four years.Even if they wanted to return, they can’t. Their homes, their businesses, their towns and their cities have been completely destroyed. This is a UNESCO World Heritage City, Homs, in Syria.So people continue to flee into neighboring countries, and we build refugee camps for them in the desert. Hundreds of thousands of people live in camps like these, and thousands and thousands more, millions, live in towns and cities. And the communities, the neighboring countries that once welcomed them with open arms and hearts are overwhelmed. There are simply not enough schools, water systems, sanitation. Even rich European countries could never handle such an influx without massive investment. The Syria war has driven almost four million people over the borders, but over seven million people are on the run inside the country. That means that over half the Syrian population has been forced to flee. Back to those neighboring countries hosting so many. They feel that the richer world has done too little to support them. And days have turned into months, months into years. A refugee’s stay is supposed to be temporary.


Back to Doaa and Bassem in the water. It was their second day, and Bassem was getting very weak. And now it was Doaa’s turn to say to Bassem, “My love, please hold on to hope, to our future. We will make it.” And he said to her, “I’m sorry, my love, that I put you in this situation. I have never loved anyone as much as I love you.” And he released himself into the water, and Doaa watched as the love of her life drowned before her eyes.


Later that day, a mother came up to Doaa with her small 18-month-old daughter, Masa. This was the little girl I showed you in the picture earlier, with the life vests. Her older sister Sandra had just drowned, and her mother knew she had to do everything in her power to save her daughter. And she said to Doaa, “Please take this child. Let her be part of you. I will not survive.” And then she went away and drowned.


So Doaa, the 19-year-old refugee who was terrified of the water,who couldn’t swim, found herself in charge of two little baby kids.And they were thirsty and they were hungry and they were agitated, and she tried her best to amuse them, to sing to them, to say words to them from the Quran. Around them, the bodies were bloating and turning black. The sun was blazing during the day. At night, there was a cold moon and fog. It was very frightening. On the fourth day in the water, this is how Doaa probably looked on the ring with her two children.


A woman came on the fourth day and approached her and asked her to take another child — a little boy, just four years old. When Doaa took the little boy and the mother drowned, she said to the sobbing child, “She just went away to find you water and food.” But his heart soon stopped, and Doaa had to release the little boy into the water.


Later that day, she looked up into the sky with hope, because she saw two planes crossing in the sky. And she waved her arms, hoping they would see her, but the planes were soon gone.


But that afternoon, as the sun was going down, she saw a boat, a merchant vessel. And she said, “Please, God, let them rescue me.”She waved her arms and she felt like she shouted for about two hours. And it had become dark, but finally the searchlights found her and they extended a rope, astonished to see a woman clutching onto two babies.


They pulled them onto the boat, they got oxygen and blankets, and a Greek helicopter came to pick them up and take them to the island of Crete.


But Doaa looked down and asked, “What of Malek?” And they told her the little baby did not survive — she drew her last breath in the boat’s clinic. But Doaa was sure that as they had been pulled up onto the rescue boat, that little baby girl had been smiling.


Only 11 people survived that wreck, of the 500. There was never an international investigation into what happened. There were some media reports about mass murder at sea, a terrible tragedy, but that was only for one day. And then the news cycle moved on.


Meanwhile, in a pediatric hospital on Crete, little Masa was on the edge of death. She was really dehydrated. Her kidneys were failing.Her glucose levels were dangerously low. The doctors did everything in their medical power to save them, and the Greek nurses never left her side, holding her, hugging her, singing her words. My colleagues also visited and said pretty words to her in Arabic. Amazingly, little Masa survived.


And soon the Greek press started reporting about the miracle baby, who had survived four days in the water without food or anything to drink, and offers to adopt her came from all over the country.


And meanwhile, Doaa was in another hospital on Crete, thin, dehydrated. An Egyptian family took her into their home as soon as she was released. And soon word went around about Doaa’s survival, and a phone number was published on Facebook.Messages started coming in.


“Doaa, do you know what happened to my brother? My sister? My parents? My friends? Do you know if they survived?”


One of those messages said, “I believe you saved my little niece, Masa.” And it had this photo. This was from Masa’s uncle, a Syrian refugee who had made it to Sweden with his family and also Masa’s older sister. Soon, we hope, Masa will be reunited with him in Sweden, and until then, she’s being cared for in a beautiful orphanage in Athens.


And Doaa? Well, word went around about her survival, too. And the media wrote about this slight woman, and couldn’t imagine how she could survive all this time under such conditions in that sea,and still save another life. The Academy of Athens, one of Greece’s most prestigious institutions, gave her an award of bravery, and she deserves all that praise, and she deserves a second chance. But she wants to still go to Sweden. She wants to reunite with her family there. She wants to bring her mother and her father and her younger siblings away from Egypt there as well, and I believe she will succeed. She wants to become a lawyer or a politician or something that can help fight injustice. She is an extraordinary survivor.


But I have to ask: what if she didn’t have to take that risk? Why did she have to go through all that? Why wasn’t there a legal way for her to study in Europe? Why couldn’t Masa have taken an airplane to Sweden? Why couldn’t Bassem have found work? Why is there no massive resettlement program for Syrian refugees, the victims of the worst war of our times? The world did this for the Vietnamese in the 1970s. Why not now? Why is there so little investment in the neighboring countries hosting so many refugees?And why, the root question, is so little being done to stop the wars, the persecution and the poverty that is driving so many people to the shores of Europe? Until these issues are resolved, people will continue to take to the seas and to seek safety and asylum.


And what happens next? Well, that is largely Europe’s choice. And I understand the public fears. People are worried about their security, their economies, the changes of culture. But is that more important than saving human lives? Because there is something fundamental here that I think overrides the rest, and it is about our common humanity. No person fleeing war or persecution should have to die crossing a sea to reach safety.




One thing is for sure, that no refugee would be on those dangerous boats if they could thrive where they are. And no migrant would take that dangerous journey if they had enough food for themselves and their children. And no one would put their life savings in the hands of those notorious smugglers if there was a legal way to migrate.


So on behalf of little Masa and on behalf of Doaa and of Bassemand of those 500 people who drowned with them, can we make sure that they did not die in vain? Could we be inspired by what happened, and take a stand for a world in which every life matters?

7 comments on “Video: A Boat Carrying 500 Refugees Sunk at Sea. The Story of Two Survivors

  1. Rose Mary Boehm
    April 8, 2023

    Heartbreaking. Yes, we all could do so much more. But our governments don’t. And we vote for them.


  2. Loranneke
    April 8, 2023

    Such tragedies, such suffering, such courage such capacity for hope…


  3. jane johnson
    April 8, 2023

    A random-fortune story to help you sleep at night, perhaps, and keep you truth-telling and keeping hope afloat: I just received news from a proud Syrian-American father about his adopted son, who is about to complete his first year at West Point Academy. This young scholar and his brother were born in Ethiopia and put up for adoption by a desperately impoverished family with more mouths than they were able to feed. Our friends, the adoptive parents, unable to conceive, already international, almost as suddenly as Doaa became a family of four with two small children. Strictly speaking, neither the Syrian father nor his Ethiopian boys were ever war refugees, but only because they left before Syria and Ethiopia became the humanitarian crises they are today. You chose to focus on real people with names instead of simply quoting statistics, which are easier to forget. My Syrian-Ethiopian friends help me to remember what Masa and Malek might have achieved, given a fair chance in their own homelands or ours…and what gifts and achievements the world loses everyday due to greed and inhumane choices/borders.


    • Vox Populi
      April 8, 2023

      Oh thank you, Jane, for this wise and hopeful response to the daily tragedy of refugees.



  4. melpacker
    April 8, 2023

    While the exact circumstances are never exactly repeated, the general story is one repeated, unfortunately, every day somewhere in the world. Whether freezing to death crossing through Canadian woodlands, falling dead trying to hike the Darien Path, or drowning in one of the many seas refugees must traverse seeking safety and a chance at a better life. We think “I understand” or “I know how they must feel” when, in fact, few of us will ever know how they feel or understand in our own life experiences. It is a tragedy that stuns me daily, while others are not only stunned but dying.


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