Some books should be required reading. A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea, by Melissa Fleming, is one of those books. Not simply because the tale of a Syrian refugee is so timely, or the topic so important. But because of its lessons about persistence, selflessness, and hope, which are the heartbeat of this true story.
We meet main character Doaa al-Zamel during a time when life in Syria looked very different. Her childhood, growing up in a large extended family, is not without economic pressures or cultural tensions, but it is mostly happy. And her fellow Syrians are hopeful that better times for their nation lie ahead under their new, Western-educated president, Bashar al-Assad. As the years pass and nothing changes, they settle back into resigned acceptance. For Doaa, now a young teen, it’s the only life she’s ever known.
But when the landscape around Syria starts to shift with the advent of the Arab Spring, Doaa’s interest in change is piqued. Could the same kind of revolution come to Syria? No surprise here for any half-informed reader: Unlike in the surrounding countries, when protests come to Syria, the result isn’t the positive transformation of a nation, but war and utter destruction.
Doaa’s enthusiasm for the protests, and her stubborn participation in spite of the danger, paint a picture of her as a strong, idealistic young woman with a mind of her own. But as a reader, it’s difficult to mirror her enthusiasm, since we already know how the fledgling revolt will end.
Of course, Doaa doesn’t know, and the suspense ratchets up with the escalation of violent government crackdowns and increasing pressure on the opposition. Meanwhile, the country around Doaa is slowly breaking down, with citizens being killed in the streets and the economy in tatters.
From there, things will get worse. And Doaa’s trials have only just begun.
Fleming spends plenty of time in Syria, helping readers understand the nature of the conflict. But the equal parts traumatic and incredible portion of the story takes place in the second half, as we follow Doaa’s journey out of Syria into Egypt, then Greece, and finally Sweden. It’s here that we begin to see into the heart of this brave woman, whom Fleming describes as strong and stubborn, but whose faith, resilience, and selflessness emerge as her stand-out qualities.
Fleming is chief spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, so it’s no surprise that she paints Doaa’s experience both as intensely personal and as emblematic of the Syrian refugee experience. This is certainly effective from one perspective: It both humanizes the refugees and heightens the importance of solving the current crisis. Doaa’s story tells us: This is a problem involving real people, and it can’t be ignored.
On the other hand, the challenge of having a third person omniscient narrator is that it tempers the impact of Doaa’s story. Although Fleming’s research is solid, and she has woven her story together out of dozens of hours of interviews with Doaa and key family members, it’s hard not to feel somewhat emotionally removed from a main character who never speaks for herself. This is a book of telling rather than showing, and it’s only because of the completely extraordinary nature of the circumstances that the telling is halfway effective.
That said, consider this book a must-read for anyone looking to understand the lives and backstories of the millions of displaced persons currently seeking refuge in Europe and elsewhere. And while there’s no question that Fleming has an agenda – Doaa’s story is her vehicle to put a relatable human face on refugees, to demystify and normalize the practice of Islam, and to demonstrate the urgency of the situation – facts are still facts. The horrors of Doaa’s journey are all too real for thousands of refugees; what makes her story unique is that she managed to survive.
Which is, in the end, the biggest takeaway “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea” has to offer. There are many points in Doaa’s journey when it would have been easier for her to give up. Many around her do. But Doaa presses on. She leans on her faith. She thinks more about others than she does about herself. In the face of devastating loss, she chooses to put her emotions on hold so she can save another’s life. For all of us tempted to quit when things get hard, or to lose hope when the landscape seems terrifyingly bleak, Doaa’s remarkable perseverance is a necessary and welcome rebuke. Her triumph proves that we are all capable of much more than we can imagine, and that our own commitment to courage can have an impact that reaches far beyond our individual lives.