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  • 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 there

  • had 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, 500 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,