Book Review Club: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival
by Melissa Fleming
Biography (for adults and young adults alike)

hope more powerful than the sea

A friend recommended this book to me in conjunction with an AAUW (American Association of University Women) program about refugees in Greece.

The book tells the story of a young Syrian woman, Doaa Al Zamel. It begins with a story of her fear of the water, to the point that she refused to go swimming with the other children. One day, an older cousin threw her in the water and she nearly drowned. That phobia stayed with her.

A shy teenage girl, Doaa is probably the last person anyone would have expected would morph into a revolutionary, but she did. The Syrian civil war started in her home city of Daraa after teenage boys painted revolutionary slogans on the walls of their schools. Instead of treating the incident as a teenage prank, Bashar Al Assad’s regime acted with typical authoritarian tactics, including arresting and torturing the boys. A spark was lit and protests broke out. Doaa was very brave in taking part in the protests, despite the danger to herself. Her father disapproved of her actions, in part because of the danger to her, but also the danger to the family at large. As the situation in Daraa worsened, he took the family into exile in Egypt.

In Egypt, Doaa met a young man named Bassam and they fell in love. The situation for Syrian refugees was deteriorating in Egypt and so the young couple made the fateful decision to pay smugglers to get them across the Mediterranean to Europe, a truly dangerous undertaking. There, Doaa was once again faced with her deepest fear of drowning. What happened to her is a story of love, loss, courage and compassion, as well as a story of how criminals take advantage of those desperate to escape danger in their homelands.

I recommend the book to Americans who don’t know much about the Syrian conflict and the difficulties faced by the refugees. Our news media has done a poor job of educating the public about what is going on over there. Reading a book about one refugee’s experience gave me a better view of the situation. I found Doaa’s story compelling, dispiriting and ultimately inspiring.

About the Author:

Melissa Fleming leads communications for the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For her job, she travels to war zones and refugee camps to give voice to the millions of people forcibly displaced from their homes. She told one remarkable refugee story on the TED stage about an extraordinary young Syrian woman who, with the baby she saved, was one of the only survivors of a boat wreck that killed 500 refugees. That story became A Hope More Powerful than the Sea.

You can find out more about Melissa at Goodreads.

Linda McLaughlin

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Book Review Club: Sisi: Empress on her Own #HistoricalFiction

Sisi Empress coverSisi: Empress on her Own
by Allison Pataki
Historical Fiction

This is the second of two books about Empress Elizabeth, wife of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Her nickname was Sisi. The first book is The Accidental Empress, and I do recommend reading it first, which I didn’t do.

Sisi picks up when she is 30 and living on her estate in Hungary. She is somewhat estranged from Franz Joseph at this point, and apparently having an affair with Julius Andrassy, a Hungarian count and patriot. Shortly into the book Franz Joseph appoints Andrassy Foreign Secretary in the government, ending the affair.

Sisi was known for her beauty. She was the supermodel of her day (mid-late 19th c.) as she was 5’8″ tall, slender and beautiful, with a mane of brown hair that reached to the floor. It took at least 3 hours for her to be dressed and coiffed every day. She spent some of that time reading and learning languages; she spoke at least five. This is probably the most famous portrait of her.


Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Courtly Gala Dress with Diamond Stars. Attribution: Franz Xaver Winterhalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sisi married early, at age 15, and had three children. Her domineering mother-in-law, Duchess Sophie, took the first two children away from her and restricted her time with them. When she became pregnant again, she grabbed the baby and ran off to Hungary, determined to raise this child, at least, on her own.

Schoenbrun Palace

Schoenbrun Palace, Sisi’s summer home in Vienna

The book follows Sisi’s life for the next 30 years, in which she spent more time away from Vienna than not, hence the title Empress on Her Own. Her husband loved her, but he hadn’t been faithful. She was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1896. (Not a spoiler since she was a real person and the first thing we see in the book is the anarchist stalking her.) She was not popular in her time, but was later, after she died. All in all, her life was rather sad.

The book was well-written and interesting, if not gripping. I learned a lot about Austro-Hungarian life and politics. I particularly enjoyed the chapters set during the Vienna World Expo in 1873, and the scenes with mad King Ludwig, Sisi’s cousin, were fascinating.

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