In 1952, The Diary of Anne Frank was first published in the United State and Britain, becoming an instant best-seller.
More to the point, the book gave its readers a first hand vision of the Holocaust in Europe, not told in the millions, but rather in the small and extremely personal story of one young girl who lived the experience. In that way, it made a far greater impact on our understanding of the Holocaust.
My mentor in the television business, Fred Friendly, told me that small stories work the best. And they do. They are the things that we, as human beings, can best relate to. The story of millions or the broad sweep of history are abstractions that are easily ignored or misused. But one person’s tale, told well, is far more moving and has a far greater impact. This has been true since the time of Homer, and it remains true today.
Melissa Fleming, Chief Spokesperson for The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has written the modern day equivalent of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, but now for the plight of Syrian refugees around the world. It is the story of Doaa al Zamel, an average Syrian girl caught up in the destruction of her country. She is no different from millions of others who have experience, and are experiencing the same thing, and that is what makes this book so powerful, so moving and so important.
Donald Trump has done a masterful job of vilifying refugees from Syria’s Civil War and using the bogeyman of the ‘refugee-terrorist’ to scare Americans. And they have been scared.
He is able to do this because in the mind of the public, and in the images that the news media show nightly, the refugees are presented as an amorphous mass of bodies and faces, either streaming across Europe towards France, Germany and Britain, or crowded onto small boats in the middle of the Mediterranean. They are rarely, and sadly, ever shown as individuals with their own stories to tell.
This is too bad, because at the end of the day, these are people who have endured almost unspeakable suffering at the hands of others and found their once stable lives destroyed.
Show them as a fleeing mass, marry that to images of burning cars or riots or even terrorist actions in places like Germany or Sweden, and you have a recipe for instilling fear. It is that kind of fear that ultimately finds its way to the voting booth and thence to the corridors of power.
However, tell a small story and you can change the world, or at least people’s perception of the world.
We first meet Doaa al-Zamel as a young girl growing up in a small village in Syria. Her father is a barber with a small shop. She has four other sisters. They are an unremarkable family, and it is this very averageness that makes her story all the more poignant. This is what happened to average people; people no different from us.
As the Civil War progresses across Syria, as the fighting and destruction become more and more intense, as the regime of Assad becomes more and more repressive, the family makes the painful and reluctant decision to leave their home, their friends, their extended family and all they have known. This is not something entered into lightly. Yet they go.
They go to Egypt, where their tenuous existence as refugees becomes untenable following the Sisi military coup. Ultimately, Doaa and her fiancee make the very frightening decision to join thousand of others who have attempted crossing the Mediterranean to Italy by smuggler and unknown and barely seaworthy boat. They know what they are getting into; they don’t want to go, but again, they have no choice.
The passage is unspeakable in itself, and remarkably dangerous, but their small boat is rammed by a boatload of people opposed to refugees. It begins to sink and the hundreds on the boat are left to drown - and they do. Remarkably, Doaa, and a small baby entrusted to her care by a dying mother while both are swimming in the sea amidst the wreckage, survive. She, and three or four others, make it to Crete and ultimately she makes it to Sweden.
You know Sweden. You know what the Trump people are saying about Sweden and the Syrian refugees there.
Read this book, and then listen to Mr. Trump expound on refugees in Sweden.
It is nothing short of revolting.
This is a true story.
That is what makes it so powerful. This is no ‘fake news’. This is not the propaganda of fear. This is a story of remarkable courage and fortitude in the face of seemingly never-ending death and destruction. This is the story of one woman’s search for peace and safety.
Is that really a crime? Is it really something to be afraid of?