As head of communications for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Melissa Fleming tells stories of resiliences to draw attention to the worst humanitarian crisis of our time
By Lara Ehrlich | Photo by Janice Checchio
Doaa Al Zamel was 19 when her fiancé, Bassem, gave his life savings for two spots on a smugglers’ ship headed for Europe. Doaa had fled the Syrian civil war two years earlier and had met Bassem in Egypt. About 2,000 refugees had already died making the voyage to Europe, but in September 2014, the couple joined more than 500 others crossing the Mediterranean Sea. They sailed for just four days before another group of smugglers deliberately rammed and capsized the ship.
Watch Melissa Fleming’s TED Talk about Doaa’s harrowing journey to safety.
As other refugees drowned around them, Bassem found a child’s life ring for Doaa and treaded water beside her. His strength gave out the following day, and Doaa was left with two babies whose desperate parents had pressed them into her arms.
A merchant vessel rescued Doaa, the two babies, and just nine others. Despite the rescuers’ efforts to save her, the smallest child, Malek, nine months old, died on board the ship.
Melissa Fleming (COM’95) told this story in a May 2015 TED Talk, which inspired offers of help from the audience and from those who have viewed the talk online since.
Melissa Fleming. Photo by Janice Checchio
She also has written a book about Doaa, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea (Flatiron Books, 2017), which has attracted the interest of film directors and producers Steven Spielberg (Hon.’09) and J. J. Abrams.
As head of communications and chief spokesperson for UNHCR, Fleming shares stories like Doaa’s to keep international attention focused on the Syrian crisis and to encourage other countries to accept refugees.
She spoke with Bostonia about her work, her book, and her concerns about the ongoing global refugee crisis, which has left more than 66 million people displaced.
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Bostonia: I understand your book has drawn interest from filmmakers.
Melissa Fleming: Yes, from the best that one could wish for. Steven Spielberg and J. J. Abrams are collaborating to adapt the book into a film. When I spoke to them recently, they said they were captivated by the story of Doaa. That was real validation that this mechanism I’m using, which is telling real-life individuals’ stories of survival and resilience, resonates with people. It builds bridges of empathy, and it gets people to want to do something. If I throw statistics at people, it has almost the opposite effect: either a kind of numbing, or they feel like, oh, that’s too big a problem for me to have any influence over. Or, I hope they’re not coming to my country. Individual stories, by contrast, stir compassion toward refugees and also the desire to help. Even more than the book, a Hollywood film has the potential to move millions, to educate and change attitudes toward refugees.
The need seems to be greater than ever.
Yes. We just announced a big increase in numbers of people forcibly displaced. This is the biggest number since World War II: 66.5 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide. I wish I could tell all of their stories.
Doaa Al Zamel says her story is “just a glimpse of the pain endured by refugees around the world.” Photo by Elena Dorfman
Is there any hope that those numbers will diminish?
The only way they can go down is if ongoing wars are stopped and future wars are prevented. We’re not seeing that happening, although there are renewed efforts. I recently worked on the transition team of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres. His biggest goal is to prevent and resolve conflicts that are driving so many people from their homes.
What do you think about the policies of the United States, in particular the more restrictive policies of the Trump White House?
Our mission is to make sure refugees—a unique category of vulnerable human beings forced to flee their own homelands to escape war, violence, and persecution—get the protection and assistance they need. At a time when record numbers of people in the world are truly running for their lives, this mission is more important than ever. We are naturally wary of actions in any country that could slow or impede the help these people need. These are challenging times for everyone, however, and in the United States we are working closely with the administration, Congress, and others to ensure continued strong US support for refugee assistance at home and abroad that is efficient, secure, and compassionate.
The United States has always led the way in this area, doing its part to take in refugees through UNHCR’s resettlement program. It’s been working for decades, and refugees like the Vietnamese boat people have become highly successful examples of refugee integration.
The Global Flow of Refugees
Watch an interactive rendering of the diaspora of refugees from 2000 to 2015.
Where do most refugees want to go? Would they like to go home, or to the United States or northern Europe?
Every refugee I talk to says that they want to go home, under one condition—that there is peace. Until that time, they want to go to a place where they’ll be safe, where they’ll be able to work and put their children in school. It’s as simple as that.
“The Vietnamese boat people are an example of a highly successful refugee integration.”
Working with refugees for eight years, you’ve seen the things that they bring with them. What kinds of things are they most likely to take?
That would depend on the country. If they come from a middle-income country like Syria or Ukraine, they’ll first grab their mobile phone. Because, in the mobile phone, they have GPS to navigate their journeys, they have all their contacts, they have family photographs, and the sense of being able to be connected to other family members and friends.
But they also bring nostalgic items or documents that could help them with their future. There was a boy named Hany who I’d met in Lebanon who was forcibly separated from his home in Syria. I asked him what he brought, and he went back into a separate part of the tent and returned with this silk-covered piece of paper, carefully unfolded it, and said, “I took my high school diploma because my life depended on it. If I’m not a student, I am nothing.” So I found that extremely powerful. Stripped of everything, the things that become meaningful generally have to deal with preserving memories or future hope. That document was going to be Hany’s lifeline.
What drove you to refugee work?
My second big job was at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe during the Bosnian War, where my organization was really involved. I saw up close what happens to people when war comes into their towns and villages and forces them to leave everything behind: the loss of family members, friends, their home, their communities. And I just thought, these people could be the most vulnerable people on Earth. The warring parties aren’t thinking of protecting them, so it’s up to the international community to shelter and care for them and speak out for their rights. Next, I became the spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was also extremely compelling. Very political, but also very removed. It is dealing with potential catastrophes. Refugee situations are real-time catastrophes involving human beings in profound need. So I jumped at the chance to take the job at UNHCR and to work and to build empathy and drive support for refugees whose voices are seldom heard and whose needs are neglected.
Is it possible to predict where the next wave of refugees will come from?
Three countries—Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey—have taken more refugees than all of Europe.
No, not really, but we’re very concerned that climate change is going to drive tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people from their homes in places where living will become unsustainable. Now, we refrain from calling them refugees, because refugees have a specific legal term under international convention and they have specific legal rights, while these will be people who will essentially be homeless for environmental reasons. We should remember though that drought in Syria was a precursor to some of the unrest and was a precursor to war. You can’t necessarily always make a direct link between things that are happening in the environment and the outbreak of war, but certain factors—scarcity of water, people being forced to move from the countryside to cities and then finding nothing—can fuel situations that could lead to the outbreak of conflict.
Your work often takes you to Syria. What’s it like in Syria now?
So much is completely destroyed—things that you just can’t imagine anyone would target: hospitals, open markets, schools. It feels like the pictures of Dresden after World War II—skeletal, no birds singing. I’ve seen parts of Damascus where people seem to be going about their lives, but there’s only power a few hours a day, maybe an hour of running water. Prices have shot up, and people have to figure out ways to get by.
We are particularly anxious about the civilians trapped in the besieged towns and cities where the armed forces in control are preventing humanitarian aid from entering. In Madaya, people are literally starving; they are eating grass and weeds. It’s hard to even imagine what people are going through. UNHCR has about 450 people working in Syria; my colleagues risk their own lives every day to access people in need.
You advocate for transforming refugee camps from temporary holding compounds into centers where refugees have access to education. Could you elaborate on the importance of this effort?
When a war concerns the international community, interested parties usually pour money toward arms or troops or peace talks—but neglect the refugee populations that are the future of that country. There’s an opportunity here: a population that has nothing to do but wait out the war and would really like for their kids to go through school. I don’t know how many camps I’ve been in where there was no education beyond primary because the money wasn’t there.
Why not come up with the funds for secondary schools or universities and have this amazing population of skilled, educated young people who can turn the country around once the war ends? They could be the ones to rebuild their war-torn countries and serve as champions for peace.
Whose responsibility is it to fund refugee camps?
It’s mostly governments that fund UNHCR—and it’s never been enough. The developing countries that are hosting 86 percent of the world’s refugees are overwhelmed, and UNHCR is underfunded and undersupported.
There is a new pledge by world leaders to improve refugee response to make funding more predictable, to involve the private sector, and to ensure there is also development support for host countries and their infrastructures. One great example from private business comes from the founder of Chobani yogurt, Turkish billionaire Hamdi Ulukaya, an immigrant himself, who has pledged to give away at least half of his wealth to refugees. He started the organization Tent, which is working to build better solutions for refugees—and half of his employees are refugees.
Are there countries doing an exemplary job welcoming and helping Syrian refugees?
The three countries that have taken in the most refugees are Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey; they have taken in more than all of Europe. Lebanon alone has taken in more than one million Syrian refugees and they have a population of only four million, so it’s quite remarkable. As the war has gone on and on and on, however, the welcome has become less and less—but that also has to do with not receiving enough funding support from the international community.
There is concern that refugees from countries where the Islamic State is active pose a terrorism threat. The FBI’s assistant director of counterterrorism
testified before Congress in 2015 that Syria didn’t have the resources to evaluate refugees. How does the UN High Commissioner for Refugees respond to those kinds of concerns?
Refugees are fleeing terrorist groups like Islamic State. UNHCR has decades of experience in screening refugees to determine their status; any involvement in military activities or associations with terrorism excludes them from gaining refugee rights. The refugee resettlement program takes scrutiny a step further: the receiving state does a further screening process and the refugee undergoes rigorous interviews and background checks.
“The reason people flee is that they have no choice if they want to stay alive.”
What about the atmosphere of fear in the United States? Some people seem to lump together all non-Americans seeking entrance into an ambiguous “other.”
People are afraid of losing whatever they have: their culture, their identity, their jobs. It’s very convenient for politicians to win votes from their fear, so they’ll say, “I’ll build a wall to keep them out,” or “refugees are all potential terrorists.” It’s irresponsible and dishonest.
There are two groups [seeking entry into the United States]: one is economic migrants, many of whom have compelling reasons for coming to other countries and very often contribute to society in huge ways. They, however, should not be lumped together with refugees. Refugees are people who are fleeing war and persecution, and if they were to return to their countries, they could face death. There is international law that protects them and gives them the right to seek asylum.
Some media have been irresponsible in not making the distinction between the two groups, most often using the terms “migrant,” “illegal migrant,” or even worse, “illegal alien.” Nobody under international law is illegal if they are fleeing across a border for their lives. So, that’s the battle we are trying to fight, but it is very difficult when people are playing on other people’s fears.
Melissa Fleming’s book about Doaa’s story is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg and J. J. Abrams.
How do you push back against media that play on fear?
I try to find not just stories about heroic, interesting, or sympathetic refugees, but also stories about people and communities that show compassion. We did a video of a grandmother near the border of Macedonia in Greece who opened her home to Syrians. She cooks for them, and the kids are all hugging and kissing her. She is having a grand old time and they are so grateful. That story gets shared online over and over again.
What message do you want to send with your book and your work with the UN?
I hope people will understand why people flee—that they have no choice if they want to stay alive and that there is a need for renewed efforts to forge peace, because one thing all refugees have in common is that they want to go home.
My goal is to give people a way to be interested, to understand, to learn more—but ultimately to do something. [The method of helping] can be very personal, it can be very small, it can be giving $10 a month or volunteering, or being more empathetic and sympathetic. I think if we could just change enough people in small ways, it’ll make a big difference for refugees.
The map below shows the global flow of refugees from 2000 to 2015. Data is from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Interactive map is courtesy of the Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.
“My goal is to give people a way to be interested, to understand, to learn more—but ultimately to do something” about the refugee crisis,” says Melissa Fleming of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
8 Ways You Can Help Refugees
People often ask Melissa Fleming (COM’95), head of communications and chief spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), what they can do to help refugees. “Small, practical, but meaningful actions can combat the feeling of helplessness that sometimes paralyzes us,” she says. “I’ve been struck by the kindness of individuals, local charities, religious groups, and students who assist refugees and migrants.” Fleming suggests eight ways you can help:
1. Host refugees and asylum seekers in your home.
Help refugees where you are. A friend of mine is offering a vacant room in his home to a family of Palestinian Syrian asylum seekers. Hekla Stefansdottir was part of the inspiring move within Iceland to offer homes to Syrian refugees. The Refugees Welcome initiative began in Germany as a way to match those with a spare room with refugees in need; it now has chapters working in 20 countries. Open Homes, an Airbnb project, allows volunteer hosts to open their homes to refugees and displaced people without charge. Local religious groups can offer a way to be connected with refugees who could use your spare room. My organization, UNHCR, recently published a series of inspiring stories profiling Europeans who have taken refugees into their homes.
2. Volunteer your specific skill.
One young university student l know teaches German to asylum seekers in Austria during their long wait for their refugee status to be determined. Angered by growing racism, a football coach in Italy started a team for refugees and migrants. A Swedish team developed the Sync Accelerator, an employment matchmaking program that helps newly arrived engineers and programmers to get a qualified job at a Swedish company. The What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge in Amsterdam invited designers to create new solutions for people on the move. In Germany, one professor built an online network to keep refugee scientists active in their fields by linking them with German academics.
3. Help refugees integrate into a new culture.
The movie The Good Lie did a great job of portraying the feelings of isolation that refugees can feel when they are relocated to a new country and then try to get over their trauma and restart their lives. Even small gestures of friendship can mean a great deal, so see if you can volunteer with an organization in your community that’s working with refugees. (Religious groups and local nonprofits like Access California Services or US Together in Ohio often have refugee programs. A quick Google search can show you what’s active in your area.) In Canada, private individuals or groups can apply to sponsor refugees to come to their country and help them integrate. A European nonprofit called United Invitations connects locals and newcomers within a community, by having them share a home-cooked meal.
4. Encourage your university to offer refugee scholarships.
For refugee students, losing the chance to pursue their studies is devastating. Since 1992, the DAFI program from the UNHCR and the German government has offered scholarships to refugees worldwide. The University of Canberra in Australia offers scholarships to refugees; a program at the World University Service Canada gives student refugees a chance to enroll at a Canadian university or college as a permanent resident. In the US, Southern New Hampshire University has launched a major $10 million initiative to bring university degrees to refugees at home and abroad, allowing it to educate up to 50,000 refugees a year by 2022. Students at Oxford University in the UK recently raised more than $300,000 to fund scholarships for refugees. Encourage your local university or college to support refugees, too.
5. Employ refugees.
In some overwhelmed countries, refugees are seen as guests and are not permitted to work. But in others, they can. Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of the American yogurt company Chobani, is not only giving away half of his wealth to aid refugees, he employs 300 refugee workers at his factories. Earlier this year, Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees globally. The website Natakallam.com gives refugees the opportunity to teach Arabic. Refugees in Berlin are working as tour guides in museums, showing tourists cultural riches from home. Could your company hire refugees? Where are you circulating job advertisements? Find a local resettlement center in your community and see if workers there can connect you with qualified talent.
6. Offer opportunities for refugees to volunteer.
In places where refugees can’t work legally, volunteering can lend the days more purpose. In Kotka, Finland, some refugees have found a sense of community by volunteering at a local retirement home. In Denmark, 12 former journalists were given the opportunity to edit the daily newspaper for a day, producing a 48-page special issue showing the refugee crisis from the perspective of those experiencing it. A farm in the UK allows refugees and asylum-seekers to learn different skills such as painting, weaving, ceramics, cooking, and agriculture.
7. Hold awareness and fundraising events.
Do this wherever you are, in your communities, schools, or the workplace. Run a half marathon, do a sponsored swim, put on a raffle or a yard sale. Websites make it easy for your supporters to donate—just register your event, spread the word, and your friends, family, and colleagues can donate securely online. If you’d like to use UN Refugee Agency materials and resources, such as banners, T-shirts, or posters, contact your local UNHCR office.
8. Donate money.
UNHCR has launched a campaign called Nobody Left Outside to provide shelter to two million refugees. If you prefer to support refugees living in poverty in Jordan, UNHCR’s cash assistance program helps individual families make ends meet. In the US, you can make a tax-free donation to USA for UNHCR. Seriously, every dollar helps.