Erasmia Roumana¡¯s job requires extraordinary strength. Working in Greece as a protection associate with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, she interviews refugees who have survived devastating shipwrecks at sea after embarking on desperate journeys in search of a better life.

¡°I have seen some very horrible situations. And I always wonder at that moment, how can people survive this? How can people move on after this?¡±

One tragic story stood out over the years. In 2014, Syrian refugee Doaa survived three days at sea following a shipwreck which killed 500 people, including her fianc¨¦. In this episode, Erasmia Roumana shares the latest fateful twist in Doaa¡¯s story and reflects on the courage and resilience of the survivors she meets.




Multimedia and Transcript




Melissa Fleming 00:02

My guest today, Erasmia Roumana, has a special place in my heart. We share our bond over a survival story that changed my life.


Erasmia Roumana 00:11

Oh my God, how can someone survive this and manage such a situation? How people really in difficult moments find the courage and the strength to move on?


Melissa Fleming 00:30

Erasmia works for the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, in Greece as a senior protection associate. We first met in Crete in 2014, because of the incredible case of Doaa, a Syrian girl who survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea, which killed around 500 people, including the love of her life. Doaa Al Zamel not only survived, but she also saved a baby little Masa as she stayed afloat on a small inflatable ring for days. I went on to write a book about it: ¡°A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea.¡± And Erasmia played a big role in helping me complete that story. From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming. Welcome to my podcast Awake at Night. Really nice to see you, Erasmia.


Erasmia Roumana 01:31

Thank you for having me.


Melissa Fleming 01:33

What do you remember about your first meeting with Doaa?


Erasmia Roumana 01:39

Yes, indeed, that was a very tragic shipwreck incident that happened in Greece back then. And it was for us also a big shock, because we hadn't seen such an incident with so many people going missing. And it was almost¡­ We could not believe at the beginning that there were some survivors. So, when we heard that there were survivors, immediately we went to meet them. And this is where I met Doaa for the first time. She's a very young girl, and she was really exhausted, very tired. You know, I remember how impressed I was that I saw this very little girl there with such¡­ believing that she had such a big courage to survive for days at sea, and also helping others to survive. I just saw in front of my eyes someone who was, you know, a hero in my eyes at that point. And even later, when I got to know her better, and you got to know her better, we saw how much strength this young lady had and how she handled the situation for so many days.


Melissa Fleming 03:04

Not only that. She lost the love of her life, her fianc¨¦, who had, I think, on day two, when the water was¡­ treading water next to her and just couldn't¡­ He just gave up. And when the more we learned about those who were kind of holding on to debris and trying to stay alive, who lost the will to go on, the more kind of remarkable she becomes. What do you remember? She was nineteen, right? And very petite. What do you remember about that strength?


Erasmia Roumana 03:41

I think that what was impressive is that she could remember many details and how the days were passing by. And the way she was describing what was happening around her, seeing the people going missing, and her wanting to fight and to keep going. I think this is what makes people really strong in such situations - and the same with Doaa - is this will to survive, this will to live and to go further. And otherwise, sometimes I don't understand. For us when someone is outside this situation, it's really difficult to imagine. Oh my God, how can someone survive this and manage such a situation? But I think this is what happens and how people really in difficult moments¡­ And this is beyond difficult, of course. But find the courage and the strength to move on. And this is admirable. And this is something that we all have to remember that, you know, how much strength we have inside. And how much strength also refugees have inside them in order for them to leave their place and, you know, travel on these, as we say, desperate journeys in order to find safety.

Erasmia Roumana beside UNHCR tent
Erasmia Roumana and UNHCR colleagues selfie


Melissa Fleming 05:11

Yeah, I mean, and you're certainly¡­ Your job actually requires you as protection associate in Greece to be on the frontlines of all of these desperate journeys and witnessing firsthand the people as they arrive, those who survived and even those who didn't. And I want to get into that a bit more, later. I came to Crete a few weeks later. I remember like calling you on Skype, because for me I just read about this horrible shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea. And this was really before the big refugee crisis that was to happen a couple of years later. And obviously, there had been shipwrecks, but it really was one of the worst.

You know, I remember the details were scarce. It seemed around 500 people had drowned. And there was this unlikely survivor and this miracle baby, as well. I wonder¡­ I mean, you also went to, you flew to Crete and met with Doaa in the family that was so generously hosting her. What was going on with Masa? Masa, the little baby, I think 18 months old. She was taken to the paediatric hospital on Crete. What I remember was hearing that the entire country was like trying to adopt her. But how did you encounter Masa, and what were your feelings?


Erasmia Roumana 06:45

First of all, for us, the little girl was connected with the story of Doaa. Because Doaa was the one who really did everything to save this little girl. From one side, the feelings we had were, you know, of course, happiness and because, you know, one more person survived this tragic incident. And on the other hand, you also felt that, you know, she's such a baby, an innocent child that still didn't know what had happened to her family who all got lost. But still there was hope that a little girl like her would continue her life, and she would meet her relatives and family and she would have a good future. So, there was mixed feelings when you see such situations. The joy of survival, and on the other hand, the tragedy behind this.


Melissa Fleming 07:48

That's right, she lost¡­ She was travelling with her parents and her older sister Sandra, and they all drowned. And there was an uncle, though, who had gone ahead. And that was one of those calculated decisions to go ahead with one of her siblings a year before. And managed to get to Sweden, managed to get asylum, and he came to Greece to claim Masa. I understand that you were very much involved during that time in trying to make sure that she was placed in the right way, and there were DNA tests. And you know, what was that like? And I believe you got to know Masa a bit.


Erasmia Roumana 08:32

Yes. She was a happy little girl. I don't think she had realized at that moment what had happened but I'm sure that all this may have¡­ It is a traumatic experience for anyone who is in it. So, I just hope, and I wish the best for her and to feel safe in her life and to [inaudible]. I hope she doesn't remember these moments. Yeah, this is what I'm thinking.


Melissa Fleming 09:04

I'm sure she would feel the loss of her of her mother. Yeah. Now, how did you help Doaa in the aftermath of this tragedy?


Erasmia Roumana 09:17

First of all, with Doaa because we spoke from the first moment and I think with the people Doaa spoke from the very beginning, she felt some trust and she followed the proper procedures here in Greece. And she found her safety also later on with her family in Sweden. So, I think, you know, we are in contact and she's doing really well and I'm very happy for her.


Melissa Fleming 09:49

I read the news and was really astonished about this horrific shipwreck but specially the survival story. And you know, as somebody who was trying to communicate about refugee needs, but also their incredible humanity and resilience, I thought that this would be a story to tell. And so, I contacted you and came to Crete a few weeks later to meet Doaa. I wouldn't have been able to do it without you. Because I did remember she was distrustful. I mean, she had gone¡­ She had, I mean, one of the things about her story was she and her fianc¨¦ had entrusted their lives to these smugglers who deceived them, took lots of money, packed the boat full of refugees - 500. Way overcrowded.

And then, you know, another smuggler boat rammed them and led to their death. So, it was very difficult and totally understandable, you know, to gain her trust to tell her story. She was just also so exhausted, and so tired. And I just saw in you, she really did trust you. She really, because you¡­ I mean, you really¡­I know that it's your job to help refugees in Greece, and your job to help guide survivors about the asylum system and how to get help. But I think what I saw in you is that your heart was there. And that's what she recognized, and she trusted you. What do you do specifically when you talk to refugees like Doaa to gain their trust?


Erasmia Roumana 11:39

I think that the most important element when we meet people who have gone through a traumatic experience like that is to really feel them and understand their situation by thinking myself in their position. It is a matter of humanity. It is a matter of understanding that the person who is before your eyes has gone something like that, and we have to show compassion and understanding and to listen to this person. So, it's a matter of like an approach, a compassionate approach. It's not something more than that. And this goes for everything in life. It's not only with refugees. The more you listen actively to people with, you know, mindfully and with compassion, the more people will be¡­ will open up and talk to you. So, this is something that's very important.

Erasmia Roumana at her desk
Erasmia Roumana standing


Melissa Fleming 12:39

Well obviously, Doaa did. And I'll be very grateful to you because, you know, that helped me gain her trust and helped me also convince her to tell her story, which has moved hundreds of thousands of people around the world through the publication of this book, and also her public speaking. And I was with Doaa the day she got the news that Sweden had granted her and her family resettlement. I remember I actually told her, and she was¡­ I just can't ever forget that look on her face. It was joy and relief at the same time.


Erasmia Roumana 13:27

Yeah, she was very happy. I think she finally¡­ at that moment, I think she understood that all this what she had on mind, her dreams to continue her life in safety, it was a moment of realization that finally despite everything that she went through, she made it.


Melissa Fleming 13:48

It's wonderful to see her thriving in Sweden now. And, you know, this doesn't happen very often, right? That you encounter so many refugees through your job, who have this hope. Have this hope that beyond the sea they're going to find a safer life, a life in security and dignity and then they find themselves in limbo, unable to move beyond Greece. How does this make you feel as somebody who is really trying to help them achieve their, well at least their rights, and to gain asylum and to have protection?


Erasmia Roumana 14:36

For me, I see the aspirations or the intentions, the dreams in their eyes, or they tell me. And sometimes they need to face the reality, though, which is the procedures or the laws, and this is something that they need to understand. And to understand that sometimes, you know, depending on the situation and the procedures, they would have to stay in one country. And it creates some frustrations to us. We work with them. But I think it's very important when at that stage you try to inform so well the other person so that they understand the reality, accept it, and find ways to really thrive in the country they are. I don't want to say now in Greece or somewhere else. And to understand there are the legal systems and the legal frameworks, and they need to comply with that. So, I think that for everyone, if accepting a reality and what is possible and what is not, I think there are always the possibilities for them to find ways and make the best out of it. It's difficult for us. I'm not saying that it's not when you see someone who has other intentions or other dreams that they cannot be fulfilled somewhere. Yeah, it is difficult for us working with them. But I think it's very important and very fair to really inform them very well about their situation.


Melissa Fleming 16:21

I mean, one of those who had other aspirations was a survivor of a shipwreck that happened this summer where 750 people, I believe, died. And you were one of the first who travelled down to Kalamata to the survivors. And the irony is that one of those few survivors of the shipwreck was Doaa's brother-in-law. So how¡­ Can you tell the story about arriving there, and then how you came to realize this twist of fate, that one of Doaa¡¯s very close relatives was going to be on one of probably the, you know, the second worst or the worst shipwreck on the Mediterranean since Doaa¡¯s was fateful day.


Erasmia Roumana 17:20

Yeah, this was a very difficult moment for me and my colleagues. And I think that UNHCR here did the best in order to support the survivors of this shipwreck. And from my side, I think that when we went there, we didn't expect to see many people to be honest. We didn't know what had happened. Because the reports were that hundreds were on that boat, so only few had been rescued. And so, where were the others that were missing? And it was a really tough and very hard for us, and for me and my colleagues to really be there and find the strength to support the survivors. In such situations what is really striking is that you talk to people and somehow, they don't listen to you exactly. They just keep asking the questions like, ¡®Where are the others? Where's my friend? What happened to them? Are there more survivors? Are there more in the hospital? Can I call my family to tell them that I'm well? Please let me find a way to call my family. Can you send them messages to tell my mother that I'm well.¡¯ So it is, no matter what else you say, people are in a situation of distress and trauma. They keep asking these questions, which is very human and very natural.

So, in this context, somehow, I was talking with different people who were asking this type of information. And at some point, also, I received unexpectedly a message from my friend Doaa, who just told me that her family, some family members were travelling on that boat. This was the moment I heard that, I don't know, I felt that this cannot be true. I just felt that it was not real what was happening and what I just read. It's too tragic to be true, something like that. I clarified a little bit with her, and it was true. I mean, she had some family members trapped being on that boat. And she was looking for them. I think she was also very in situation of shock and trying to keep herself together. I just didn't know what to tell her. I didn't know what to tell her. To say to her, what? ¡®I'm sorry.¡¯ And I just said, ¡®Look, you know, you have to wait a bit. You know, be positive. Try to think that maybe there are people around among the survivors, maybe there will be more survivors.¡¯ What do you do in this situation? How do you encourage people to be strong and to wait basically.

And then with a very, you know, a coincidence, I just realized that one of the people that Doaa was looking for was among the survivors. And somehow, I do not, I cannot go into many details about that. But, you know, we brought¡­ we informed each other about, you know, Doaa looking for him and him looking to talk to his family and Doaa. And so, we brought them into contact, and it was an unbelievable moment. I will never forget that in my life, the happiness in their faces. And it was unbelievable.


Melissa Fleming 21:29

Now, in between these very high-profile shipwrecks, you've been on the frontlines of the Greek response for UN Refugee Agency, you know, for years. And also, been at the receiving end of those who arrived on these small boats, these very inflatable boats that also are at risk of capsizing. And also, where the boats arrive and not everyone survived. Is there any incident that really sticks out in your mind from all of these? Or is it kind of a blur?

Erasmia Roumana wearing UNHCR vest
Erasmia Roumana walking towards group of asylum-seekers
Erasmia Roumana talking to an asylum-seeker


Erasmia Roumana 22:16

My role is connected let's say to the sea, because I'm a protection staff. I'm doing a lot of work that is related to sea arrival, sea incidents, and search and rescue operations, the shipwrecks. So, yes. I've seen a lot of incidents that ended up also in deaths and missing persons. I see each one of those as very, you know, tragic. As long as a human life is lost, or there are missing persons. Because this is another chapter, which is really for me very difficult to accept and to understand, because there is never closure when there are missing persons. And I've seen families, even years after such incidents occur, to come back to us, and still have hope that their relatives or their child or their wives, their spouses, they're somewhere. Because they heard that they may be somewhere in a reception facility or in a city, in a town and they're alive. Another part that makes my work very difficult is to see parents when they lose, they miss their children in such incidents. From babies or small children. It is really heartbreaking to see the mother and father to have to accept this reality.


Melissa Fleming 24:02

You mean that they arrive, and their child had slipped out of their arms during the boat journey.


Erasmia Roumana 24:11

There are incidents like that. That maybe a child has lost their life during the journey, but also it could be that it's during a shipwreck or during an accident with a boat. So, this is for me one of the difficult parts - to see how the parents have to accept that either their child has died, and they have it in front of their eyes. They just lost their children during this journey. Or it could be that parents may have lost their children, their child. Or children in most of the cases in shipwrecks and they have gone missing, and they never see their children again, neither alive or dead. And this is where I'm talking about, that having parents coming back even after years to really thinking that maybe their child has been found and is somewhere. Yeah.


Melissa Fleming 25:09

Wow, always holding out that hope unless you are able to bury your loved one. How do you cope with this kind of tragedy? Because you're really, you're not just eyewitness to it. You know, you're speaking to survivors who are so full of the worst anguish and sorrow and despair.


Erasmia Roumana 25:37

I'm thinking about these stories. And as I said, because I'm trying to see myself in these stories, this somehow it also gives me strength. It's something that I cannot explain 100 percent. But if you feel yourself that you understand what the person has gone through, it is as if you also have this experience. And this something that makes you stronger, and makes you more, how can I say [inaudible]. It gives you some also qualities that the other person has - the strength, the courage, the resilience. I think this is what makes me able to continue my work. I do not¡­ I have seen really some very horrible situations. And I always wonder at that moment, ¡®How can people survive this? How can people move on after this?¡¯ And yeah, first of all, it's a matter of gratitude towards the trust that people show you and they tell you these stories. And then it's also the gratitude to life and to the strength that we all have as humans.


Melissa Fleming 27:09

That's really wonderful. I mean, a very unique perspective. I know that there are some colleagues though who do need to be transferred after a few years of this. It is too much. What is keeping you awake at night, Erasmia?


Erasmia Roumana 27:29

Sometimes I just think that I would like to see more progress in areas like protection of refugees, human rights. And maybe I'm very impatient sometimes because I want to see improvement. I want to see progress. And I'm trying and my colleagues and everyone tries the best. And then you see that this situation is prolonged or it's stagnated. And this is sometimes what may make me also frustrated and awake at night. Yeah. That I would like to see more actions from actors who are involved with the rights of refugees. I don't want to say now only the states but everyone to be more proactive and to be more proactive in solving and addressing root causes for what is happening. It's not about only the response after a tragic incident or, you know, the sadness we all feel about it. It is to think ahead and to think what could prevent such situations. And this is what would make me a more relaxed and not awake at night humanitarian.


Melissa Fleming 28:58

I wonder if you get frustrated or angry.


Erasmia Roumana 29:01

Yes, I do. I do get angry. And this is, I think it's a healthy feeling in such situations to get angry and not to allow to, and not to tolerate, not to accept the loss of so many lives at sea for these reasons. There must be ways to prevent that and to address as I said, these movements in a safer way and to accept that also people will continue moving. If we see that there are unstable situations in many places around the world, I mean, it is mathematically expected that people will move. So, this is something that¡­ How will they move? Do they have to get on the boat? Do they have to risk their lives? These are the questions that I'm having, and they puzzle my mind. Yeah.


Melissa Fleming 30:17

I wonder, you know, did you always want to work as a humanitarian? And just tell me about your origin story. How did you become one? How did you get into this field?


Erasmia Roumana 30:31

Yes. Actually yes, I always wanted to become a humanitarian. I felt for other people since I was very young. And I think that also through my studies in law and I tried to really cultivate and make this frame a little bit, this feeling I had of compassion for other people, and solidarity. And this is when I got on the route and when I started with UNHCR, actually as an intern. I realized that this is like my call, and this is where I wanted to be. Because the refugees, working with refugees was something that I really enjoyed. And I felt that it had a really a purpose in my life. So yeah, I think I'm on the right place. Yeah. I'm lucky with this.


Melissa Fleming 31:33

And you grew up in Athens?


Erasmia Roumana 31:35

I grew up in Athens and then I continued. I studied in Athens and then in Austria. And in Austria, I had this great opportunity with UNHCR to start my internship back then. I was so happy, an unexpected opportunity for me. Always grateful to my colleagues there. Yeah, this is how it all started. And then from there, I continued with some field presence in the Western Balkans. I stayed in Kosovo with UNHCR for many years. That was also a very¡­ These were different times, very difficult in a post conflict situation. So, really pain there. I will always remember¡­ I think I grew up as a professional, but also as a human through my experience in a post conflict situation. Because you see all the trauma of the war. You see what is the impact of this, not only on the displaced communities and displaced persons, but also on the local communities. And it is really hard to really build trust again. And it was a big lesson for me working in an environment after a war situation.

Erasmia Roumana in front of UNHCR supplies tent
Erasmia Roumana in a UN vehicle


Melissa Fleming 33:07

You didn't mention your parents. What did they say when you decided to go in this direction - humanitarian? Was this something that they thought was a good direction?


Erasmia Roumana 33:20

I think that my parents and my family they already knew that this would be my direction. You know, sometimes you meet some children that they know from the very beginning what they want to be and someday they become that. So, that was with me and human rights, in the field of human rights and refugees. I was always talking about it, really since, you know, later childhood years. Like as a teenager this was my direction. And I really thank my parents because they let me go to that direction and they never forced me to be something else, I think. And I'm very thankful to them.


Melissa Fleming 34:09

If you could, I mean, I know it must be difficult to have much hope, but you seem to be an optimistic person. What would you hope for refugees?


Erasmia Roumana 34:22

I hope that they are more understood. I hope that I don't read awful xenophobic comments about refugees. This is what I want. I understand the challenges. I understand the difficulties and what it creates, you know, from a political, or point of view, or social point of view, but it's not the fault of the refugees. This is my hope. More understanding, more solidarity, more compassion, more solutions, and also many empowered and excited humanitarians to really be there and have the strength to continue what we do.


Melissa Fleming 35:21

Erasmia, thank you for joining me on Awake at Night.

Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working against huge challenges to make this world a better and safer place.

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Thanks to my editor Bethany Bell, to Adam Paylor, and to my colleagues at the UN: Katerina Kitidi, Roberta Politi, Geneva Damayanti, Tulin Battikhi, and Bissera Kostova and the team at the UN studio. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier. Additional music was by Pascal Wyse.