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Behind the Label: Refugee

Behind the Label is a blog series that aims to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about refugees, encouraging us all to recognize our intrinsic humanity.

Dive into what it is like for many refugees worldwide to risk everything they have at sea for survival. 

Labeling people is something we all do. It can be good or bad depending on whether it makes you assume positive or negative things about that person.   


Sometimes labels can create apathy because we feel we can’t identify with or share common grounds with certain people. If we take the time to see past the label, we would see what lies at the heart of what makes us human. 


The label of “refugee” is given to someone “who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence”, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 


In the media, they are often portrayed as lazy people who leech off a host country, only looking for a handout. The fact of the matter is that anyone can become a refugee, and every one of the 117.2 million displaced people have a story to tell.   


One story was so remarkable that the Chief Spokesperson for the UNHCR, Melissa Fleming, was compelled to share it with the world. That inspiring story was that of Doaa Al Zamel.  


Doaa was a teenage student who was forced to flee Syria with her family when the Syrian War broke out in 2012. They first arrived in Egypt, but after two years, their living situation deteriorated.  Doaa and her fiance, Bassem, whom she met in Egypt, decided to find a better life in Sweden.   


The journey to Sweden would be a dangerous one, but ‘It is better to have a quick death in the sea than a slow death in Egypt,’ Doaa said to her fiancé Bassem. 


They gave some smugglers everything they had to board a rusty fishing boat to Italy – the first leg of their journey – along with more than 500 men, women, and children.   


The passengers, soaked from the constant splashing of the waves, were cold at night and hot during the day. Despite the crowded conditions and exposure to the elements, all held onto the hope of a better future than what they left behind.   


On the fourth day at sea, a ship of angry men ramped their boat, causing it to sink.  Many died either from drowning in the icy sea or from injuries sustained from being hit by the boat’s propeller.   


Doaa continues the story in her own words: 


“As people were drowning around us Bassem found a small inflatable ring and had me get in while he held on to the side to stay afloat. On day two in the sea, I noticed that Bassem was growing weaker. His skin was turning blue and it seemed like he was going mad. I wondered if we would ever be rescued when an old man swam over and handed me his 9-month-old granddaughter. Her name was Malak. 


The old man knew he would not survive but thought I might and asked me to look after her in his place. I cradled Malak like she was my own and sang her lullabies whenever she started crying. But Bassem was still weak and I was trying to hold on to him while holding Malak in my arm. All of a sudden I felt Bassem slip from my hand as his body went limp and he was taken by the sea. 

I was overcome with sadness and didn’t want to go on but I knew that Malak needed me. Shortly after Bassem was taken from me, a woman swam over and asked me to save her baby. Masa was 18 months old and as I held her and Malak I knew that no matter how scared, tired and heartbroken I was I needed to do everything I could to keep these two little girls alive. 

After our fourth day floating on the Mediterranean, we were found by a tanker ship and I thought about how it was finally over. I held out as long as I could and now Malak and Masa were with people who could help them, and I could finally join Bassem at the bottom of the sea. But then I was pulled up onto the ship with people looking after me, and soon we were on our way to Crete where even more people were waiting to help. I didn’t think this could be real life and each time I woke up I looked for Bassem, thinking this was all a nightmare.” 

Get the full account of Doaa’s harrowing experience in, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming. 

Unfortunately, Malak passed away shortly after their rescue. 


Doaa was credited with saving the life of Masa, and hailed a hero. 


Eventually, Doaa was reunited with some of her family in Sweden. Her experience has made her an in-demand speaker for refugee topics, and bringing awareness to their cause.  


Similar to those on Doaa’s boat, the Rohingya find themselves taking a deadly journey across the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. They are risking their lives to escape either from persecution from Myanmar, or the crowded living conditions in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.   


In 2021, Myanmar security forces launched a campaign of systematic killing, rape, and burning of homes against the Rohingya. These acts are tantamount to genocide, causing at least 1.35 million to flee the country. 

Read more here on the latest situation in Myanmar. 


Data from UNHCR for 2023 revealed more than 4500 desperate Rohingya attempting to flee by sea, with at least 569 deaths. 


Unfortunately, some Southeast Asian countries have refused the boats carrying refugees to land, or have sent them back out to sea after providing minimal food and medical care. This is in violation of the non-refoulement principle under international human rights law, which bans nations from sending people back to where they are at risk of serious human rights violations.   


If you have ever been bullied as a kid, you can relate to the Rohingya, or the Bosnians, or the Rwandans, or any victims of genocide. People who had power decided to channel their hate on you, simply because you exist, while others who have knowledge of this abuse, stand by and watch, refusing to intervene because of the repercussions or it would be too much trouble.   


LIFE supports the Rohingya. Projects providing emergency relief and aid have been ongoing, such as food baskets donated to victims of the Cox Bazaar fire, and an eye clinic was set up to aid the visually impaired.   


The seriousness of the Rohingyas’ situation have led LIFE to bring forth an emergency appeal, directing funds to alleviate some of their suffering. LIFE hopes to provide food, water, shelter, and other necessities to the Rohingya so they don’t have to risk their lives on dangerous boat journeys.   


The Rohingya aren’t a group of faceless, nameless people labeled “refugees”. They are human beings with families, needs, and desires, whose hearts are broken from undeserved hate.   


If you feel compelled to support the Rohingya, consider donating to the Rohingya Refugee Emergency Relief. Join us, as we tell them, “You are not forgotten.  We see you”. 



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