The Current

'I had a feeling of death before me': A refugee's survival story of 4 days floating at sea

In 2014, the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean carrying 500 refugees sank near Greece. Only 11 people survived. After four days floating in the sea, with babies in her arms, Doaa Al Zamel survived. She shares her remarkable story.
Doaa Al Zamel survived four days floating in the Mediterranean sea with the children of strangers in her arms, after the boat she was on sank. (Courtesy of Melissa Fleming)

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In 2016 alone at least 5,000 migrants and refugees died attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean sea — all of them desperate to escape war and poverty in their country.

More migrants and refugees will try again as the weather begins to warm, but many will not survive. 

One of the worst shipwrecks occurred in 2014 when a boat carrying 500 people — many from Syria — sank near Greece.

Only 11 people survived, enduring those four horrible days floating in a sea. Among them was then 19-year-old Doaa Al Zamel, who managed to stay afloat while holding on to the two babies that were handed to her by their drowning relatives.

Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, shares Al Zamel's story in a new book, A Hope More Powerful than the Sea.

"It's not just a sad and a tragic story, it's a triumph story. A story that shows so much resilience and so much hope," Fleming tells The Current's Friday host Laura Lynch. 

"Before the war I had such a nice life which was safe," Al Zamel tells Lynch. Al Zamel is part of a large family of six girls and one boy.

"So much changed when the war began ... When the war began it was like the sky fell to the Earth."

​The family decided to flee to Egypt, where she eventually met a man named Bassem, who became her fiancé. But life was hard and there was no work, so at Bassem's urging, they decided to make their way to Europe.

"Honestly, I didn't want to go to Europe, I had no real desire to leave but Bassem was the one who planted the idea in my mind and I went because of him. Bassem was telling me about Sweden. He told me that it was a really nice country where the quality of life would be so much better," says Al Zamel.

They paid smugglers to get a place on boat crossing the Mediterranean. She says it was a difficult moment when she saw the boat. 
Doaa's fiance Bassem met Doaa Al Zamel in Egypt before heading to start a new life together in Europe. (Courtesy of Doaa Al Zamel)

"I was so scared, I had a feeling of death before me ...The only thing that helped me deal with my fear was Bassem who was with me all the time. But at the end of the day, whether it was death by sea, or a slow death in Egypt, these were really the only choices in front of us,"  Al Zamel tells Lynch.

During the voyage, the smugglers made passengers change boats a number of times. After four days at sea, another boat approached them but people refused to change boats. 

"People were sick. The situation was tense. They told us that after 16 hours we would reach Italy. But we didn't know that 16 minutes later death would be facing us," Al Zamel says.

After heated words, the empty boat rammed them and the boat Al Zamel was on sank. Everyone on board was thrown into the water. 

Bassem found a child's inflatable life ring and Al Zamel climbed onto. She didn't know how to swim.

Al Zamel estimates around 50 people survived after the boat initially capsized but people started to die, one after the other, in front of her eyes.

On the second day after the wreck, floating with Bassem with the bodies of the dead bumping up against them, a man approached her, carrying his 9-month-old granddaughter, Malak. She was from a family of 27, all from Gaza. Everyone else in her family died. The grandfather begged Al Zamel to hold the baby. Shortly after she took the little girl, the grandfather passed away.

At the same time Bassem was fading; while Al Zamel held Malak with one arm she tried to hold onto Bassem with the other, but he died in front of her, and slipped under the water.

"It's hard to describe. It was so difficult to see the love of your life die from between your hands and I couldn't do anything to help him," Al Zamel recalls.

"I was always trying to give him strength and to pray for him and he was doing the same for me. He said 'I'm sorry I feel like I have done you a wrong by bringing you here. It was my fault.' I said, 'Don't say that to me. This is our fate. It is better that we die together here because even in death at least we are together' and he said to me, 'I love you. I've never loved anyone like you.'"

The merchant ship that rescued Doaa Al Zamel and the few remaining survivors. (Erwin Willemse/

After Bassem's death, a second family asked Al Zamel to hold their daughter Masa, who was about 18-months-old, while they tried to help their older daughter who was close to death. Their attempts failed; soon after handing over Masa, the rest of the family died.

"I still don't know why they chose me but I was happy because I wanted to help, I wanted to help everyone that was there, but of course it wasn't possible for me to do that," she tells Lynch. 

After four days at sea, two spent holding the babies, who were nearing death, a merchant ship found Al Zamel and the few remaining survivors.
Baby Masa survived thanks to Doaa Al Zamel. She was reunited with family now lives in Sweden. (Courtesy of Melissa Flemming)

"I was happy when I saw the boat ... that I would be saved but what made me happiest was that I would save these children who were my responsibility." 

When they were rescued, both babies were in a critical condition. Sadly, Malak only lived for five hours after being rescued. 

"She died and she left me," says Al Zamel.

Al Zamel says she hopes sharing her story through Fleming's book will create empathy in people.

"Sometimes one voice is a way of telling the story of so many. My story represents the suffering of the Syrian people who are still suffering," she tells Lynch.

"We're not arriving in your countries wishing harm. We are not terrorists. It's the conditions that have pushed us to make these journeys."
Al Zamel ended up in Greece after her rescue and the UNCHR arranged for her and her family in Egypt to emigrate to Sweden, where she lives and studies now.

Doaa family reunion

6 years ago
Duration 1:02
Doaa family reunion

Baby Masa survived and was reunited with family, an uncle. She also lives in Sweden now. 

Al Zamel says there is one thing she hopes for most.

"Peace" for Syria. 

Listen to the full story at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.