Melissa Fleming

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea

  • This summary of A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming.

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea (2017) is a nonfiction biography by Melissa Fleming, the chief spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In order to call attention to the plight of refugees in the modern world, Fleming searched for, in her words, “distinctive accounts of survival and resilience that illustrate refugees’ predicaments.” During her research, she landed on the story of Doaa Al Zamel, a Syrian teenager whose harrowing tale of survival against all odds is a rare refugee story that has a relatively hopeful ending. Because Fleming is not a writer, she worked with journalists and other colleagues to interview Zamel, reconstructing her life story. The narrative was first assembled as a TED talk and then shaped into a book with the help of an Arabic-speaking journalist who “added perceptive commentary and contributed descriptive writing” to round out the text.

Doaa Al Zamel grew up in a boisterous, bustling family in a village near the city of Daraa, Syria, now known as the “cradle of the Syrian revolution” because it is the first place where opposition to the oppressive regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad first began in 2011. Fifteen-year-old Doaa’s teenage ambition revolves around getting an education, but when protesters start demonstrating against the government she joins in. Despite almost being shot twice for marching peacefully through the streets of Daraa, Doaa doesn’t want to give up making her voice heard.

Soon, the government escalates the hostilities. Tanks roll into the city, demonstrators are executed en masse, and Doaa and her family decide to leave their country to stay safe. Their vague plan is to make their way to Egypt, like many refugees forced to flee Syria. They are lucky – they make it out of the country along with 5 million of their fellow countrymen. Fleming points out that at the same time, many more people than that become internal refugees – kicked out of their homes but unable to leave Syria.

In Egypt, Doaa and her family try to make the best out of their situation. Instead of continuing high school, Doaa is forced to sew burlap bags in a factory. She meets and becomes engaged to Bassem, another Syrian refugee who was once a member of the Free Syrian Army (one of the opposition forces fighting against President Assad). Life for refugees is dire, however, becoming unsafe enough that they decide to make the perilous boat journey to cross to Europe on a smuggler boat in order to apply for asylum. They leave on September 6, 2014.

The boat is a nightmare. Doaa has to conquer a lifelong fear of open water, facing a journey across rough seas in a vehicle not made for this kind of sailing. After four days on the water, the smuggler boat filled with more than five hundred refugees is suddenly attacked by pirates. Yelling terrifying insults and threats, the pirates ram their boat into the boat where refugees are hastily putting on life vests and praying to survive the attack. The pirates yell that they are there specifically to murder each one of the people trying to get to Europe.

The smuggler boat starts sinking – damaged by the ramming, it is no longer seaworthy. Doaa sees people around her desperately trying to float on anything. She sees blood in the water and realizes that the other refugees are being sucked into the boat’s propellers and chopped to pieces. Somehow, in the confusion, she finds Bassem, who gives her a small inflatable child’s toy that she can use to prop up her head.

In the next few hours, the fifty to one hundred survivors of the shipwreck start to die. Some drown, some dehydrate, some freeze to death. The next morning, after Doaa and Bassem tell each other that they will never stop loving one another, an old man swims near them with a nine-month-old baby. They are the only survivors of a twenty-seven-person family; after asking them to hold the baby for a bit so he can rest, the old man dies.

Bassem loses consciousness in the water and Doaa is unable to flip him face up because she is holding baby Malak. She watches him die and commits to keeping the baby alive at all costs.

The next day, Doaa swims near a family she met on the boat. They have a two-year-old toddler, Masa, who is barely alive. As Doaa promises to take care of the girl, she watches the mother convulse and die.

Singing lullabies to the babies, Doaa continues to try to keep them warm and awake as she floats in the water with lessening strength.

Meanwhile, the chemical tanker CPO Japan had received a distress call from the Maltese coast guard – a refugee boat had wrecked, and all available ships were asked to go look for survivors. Although at first, the tanker captain could only see dead bodies, his men thought they could hear a woman’s voice calling out every now and again. Eventually, they managed to locate Doaa. She had saved both of the babies, and all three were lifted to safety. They had spent four days floating without food or water.

After earning awards from humanitarian agencies for her heroism, Doaa is now resettled in Sweden. But this “happy ending” is bittersweet. As Doaa says, she wants more than anything to eventually “return to Syria so I can breathe again.”

Fleming ends the book with a heartfelt acknowledgment of Doaa Zamel’s generosity in sharing her story. Zamel also includes a personal note of thanks at the end of the book. After telling this incredible tale, Fleming asks for the reader’s moral outrage: “Why is there no massive resettlement program for Syrians – the victims of the worst war of our times?”