On December 19 the Academy of Athens, the leading research organization in Greece, decided that she was the most appropriate person to be nominated for the Academy’s Annual Award. Doaa Al Zamel travelled to Athens to receive her award and be recognized for the courage and bravery she had shown by saving a child’s life.
The 19-year old girl grew up in Dera’a, a town in south-western Syria. In 2012, as the civil war escalated, her family decided to escape to Jordan and then continue on to Egypt. Two years later, she and her fiancé, Bassem, realized that there would be no future for them in Egypt or Syria. They decided to escape to Europe with the hope that they could ultimately reach Sweden, where Doaa has relatives.
September 10 was the fourth day since the boat carrying the couple had departed from Damietta in the Nile Delta, on course for Malta. In the vessel there were immigrants from Sudan, Syria, Egypt, and Libya, along with Palestinians from Gaza. That day they were stopped by another boat. “The people on it asked us to stop. They threw pieces of metal and wood at us and swore at our captain,” recounted Doaa to reporters from The Guardian a few days after her rescue. “After our boat refused to stop, they circled us and then rammed us. They waited until we had sunk and then left.”
The boat sank quickly. She grabbed onto a life vest floating nearby in the open sea, and then she realized that her fiancé was not one of the survivors swimming around her. One after another people started dying, of cold, tiredness, lack of water, and lost hope. An old man approached her and asked her to take care of his granddaughter. Later a mother entrusted her with two kids, an 18-month-old baby girl and a six-year-old boy, a few minutes before she died. The young woman tried to keep the kids alive, but she managed to save only the 18-year-old girl. After three nights in the sea, a Greek boat found her and transferred her and the remaining survivors to the Cretan city of Chania.
A few days after the incident became known, two Palestinian survivors, who were rescued by another boat and taken to Sicily, reported that the smugglers, who appeared to be travelling in a separate boat, had ordered the immigrants to switch to a smaller, less seaworthy vessel. When the immigrants refused to do so their traffickers rammed their boat on purpose.
Every year, many refugees from the Middle East and African countries try to escape and find a better place, away from raging wars. But the case of Doaa is unique. The support she received from a public institution in Greece is not commonplace. Of the 46.500 Syrians who have arrived in the country, since 2011, only an estimated 1600 have managed to apply for asylum, according to a Eurostat report. Refugees from Syria who manage to complete the deadly journey and cross the doorstep of Europe through Greece, realize that the better life they dreamt off is not there for them. They find themselves trapped in a country that doesn’t accept them but doesn’t let them move further into Europe either.
Meanwhile the exodus continues unabated. The UN Agency for Refugees records that about 130,000 people arrived in Europe in 2014, compared with 60,000 the year before. While this number is staggering enough, another record is even more discouraging. A record 3,419 migrants have lost their lives this year crossing the sea on rickety boats. It comes as no surprise that the Mediterranean Sea is described as “the most lethal route in the world”.