It was in September 2015 that I first saw Nujeen Mustafa on television, talking to the BBC’s Fergal Keane. She was 16, tired and hot from the midday sun, waiting at the Hungarian border with hundreds of refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Hungary had closed its doors, and the crowds pressed against the huge fence it had built, shouting, ‘Hungary, Open the door’! Nujeen was in a wheelchair, with her elder sister Nasrine, waiting for the gates to open.
She had travelled almost 3,572km from Aleppo in Syria to Roszke in Hungary, in every conceivable mode of transport, and to be turned back now – after all that she and the others from her country had gone through, was unimaginable. It was at that moment I saw her talking to Keane with a determination and nerve that belied her age. ‘You should fight to get what you want in this world, it’s a journey for a new life,’ she told Keane in that interview, warming up to the cameras with a beautiful smile as if the journey she undertook was never a tragedy, but an adventure.
Of grit and fortitude
Earlier this month, I met Nujeen for the first time at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. She had survived a war, a terrible regime and Daesh and had at last rebuilt her life on the outskirts of Cologne in Germany, with her brother Bland, her sisters Nahida and Nasrine and her four nieces in their new home in Wesseling, in Germany.
At 18, Nujeen, who was never formally educated in Syria, now goes to school, speaks German, has a shiny new blue wheelchair and has co-written (with celebrated British author and journalist Christina Lamb) a book titled Nujeen. It documents her incredible odyssey from Syria to Germany in a wheelchair. Lamb first saw Nujeen near the Hungary border.
As you speak to Nujeen, her optimism shines through. ‘I do have a new life now,’ she tells me when I remind her of that first interview on BBC, and then she adds, ‘It’s all because of Mama Merkel,’ aka German chancellor Angela Merkel, who led Germany’s open-door policy for asylum seekers.
Nujeen’s harrowing journey in a wheelchair from Syria to Germany over hard tracks, dusty fields, cobbled cliffs, through land, air and sea, is a story of grit, fortitude and hope. It’s a story that lends a face to the greatest humanitarian issue of our time, the Syrian refugee crisis. With her sister Nasrine, Nujeen covered 5,782km and spent €5,045 (Dh19,771) to reach Germany after travelling through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary and then rerouting themselves through Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria when Hungary closed its doors. Despite the gruelling trek that would be difficult for even the most able-bodied, Nujeen was determined to reach the country that promised them asylum. ‘I didn’t want to be seen as just a number. I didn’t want to be a victim. It was either a new life or nothing at all. I decided to fight because I wanted to live.’
In the book, Nujeen writes: ‘To be a successful migrant you need to know the law. You need to be resourceful. You need a smartphone and to be on Facebook and WhatsApp. You need some money. Ideally you should know a bit of English. And in my case you need a sister to push your wheelchair.’
Born in 1999 in Manbij in northern Syria, Nujeen was the youngest in a Kurdish family of 11 in a mostly Arab town. Her parents spoke Kurdish, were never ‘obsessed’ by religion, and didn’t expect their girls to cover their heads when they went out to study. Born with cerebral palsy, it was Nujeen’s curious mind that made her extremely resourceful. As a young girl she taught herself English by watching popular American soap opera, Days of Our Lives, collected facts from documentaries on National Geographic, watched popular science television series Brain Games to learn to control her mind and fear and enjoyed football matches with her siblings.
‘It was by no means a lonely childhood,’ remembers Nujeen fondly. Her earliest memories of her life, first in Manbij and then in her fifth-floor apartment in Aleppo was reading books. ‘My sister Nahra taught me to read. She and Nasrine introduced me to fairy tales. They did not accept the idea that my disability was an excuse to remain uneducated. So there I was reading as much as possible.’ Later in Gaziantep in Turkey, where Nujeen stayed for a while, before setting off on the journey to Europe, she immersed herself in getting more information. ‘I loved being a fact finder,’ she says, explaining how she googled everything on the laptop given to her by her brother Shiar, a documentary filmmaker who was already living in Germany. From learning about famous personalities (one of her dreams is to meet the Queen of England), to studying maps to understand her route and the countries she would be travelling through, Nujeen’s mind turned into a storehouse of information.
Onwards to Turkey
It was January 2014, and Daesh had set up their headquarters in the town of Raqqa, less than 160km away from Manbij, where the Mustafa family was staying after constant bombings in Aleppo had pushed them out of the historic city. Overnight their lives changed. Daesh in Manbij were forcing women to cover themselves, beheading men and abducting girls. Also her hometown was at the centre of fierce fighting between Daesh and the US-backed Kurdish forces. By August the family had made up their mind to send Nujeen, her sister Nasrine and their brother Bland to Turkey. Their uncle drove them to Gaziantep in Turkey where several other Syrian families were living. The parents joined them later. Leaving Syria, says Nujeen, was the hardest part. She remembers seeing writing on a wall in the border town of Jarablus from where they drove across to Gaziantep. It said, ‘Your homeland is not a hotel you can check out of if the service is bad.’ ‘It was heartbreaking,’ says Nujeen, ‘Nobody leaves their home without a reason. I felt very sad to leave Syria, it was just terrible.’
Smuggled to Greece
A year later, in August 2015, as the violence only increased in Syria, almost four million Syrians had left the country and another eight million had to abandon their homes. The EU had 32,000 asylum seekers. It was decided that before Europe closed its doors, sisters Nasrine and Nujeen would travel together, first by air to Izmir, then by boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.
‘At the point where we were going to be smuggled to Greece, it was rough terrain and Nasrine had a hard time pushing me to the shore to get on to the boat,’ remembers Nujeen. ‘The wheelchair bumped around, and my arms were covered with bruises, but if only the chair could speak he would tell you how terribly wounded he was,’ she says of her constant companion during the journey.
There were 38 of them crammed into the dinghy that would carry them to Lesbos. It was eight miles by boat, and they paid the people smugglers $1,500 (Dh5,508) each, and €50 for life jackets. It was Nujeen’s first time on a boat, her first time at sea and ‘my curiosity was activated like never before,’ she says. ‘I felt like a six year old embarking on an adventure, more excited than nervous. The view of the sea and the dark island was something straight out of a documentary.’
Nujeen writes in the book, ‘I’d never been in water… Yet sitting in my wheelchair, higher than everyone else, I thought of myself like Poseidon, God of the Sea, in his chariot… I cried as we were tossed up and down. I laughed every time we were hit by another wave even though we were drenched through.’ For Nujeen it seemed like a good twist in a movie. ‘Either a new beginning or death. I just prayed and hoped I would see my parents again’
The boat reached Lesbos on the same day three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was washed up on the island of Kos. As the world watched in shock Nujeen realised they were caught up in something far more serious than she had imagined. ‘I slowly realised that there was a huge refugee crisis in this part of the world and we were a part of it.’
Hitting a low
After crossing Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, the sisters hit a tough spot in Hungary. ‘Oh that horrible fence,’ Nujeen remembers. ‘That was the worst point of the journey. I realised how unwanted we were, like an epidemic. The people of Hungary refused to let us in, they were afraid of us. The soldiers stood there like robots and even as the people on the Serbian side banged themselves on the fence, their faces showed no expression. To think that they were scared of us, when we had to undergo so much trauma fleeing from war, surviving on sugar cubes, sleeping by the fields, it was hard to fathom,’ says Nujeen ‘My heart just broke at that point.’
But her face lights up the next minute when she says: ‘But there was hope at hand. We learnt the Croatian President was supporting refugees and that made us plan a new route. That night though we slept in a tent at the Serbian border.’
The other difficult point in the journey was when Nujeen and Nasrine were held in a detention centre in Slovenia for 24 hours. ‘I told myself never to give up hope. Our lives and our future were worth it. It’s scary but I kept telling myself that nothing lasts forever, including your misery and suffering.’
Home, at last
From a girl who never left her fifth-floor apartment in Aleppo, Nujeen has made it across nine countries, from war to peace, from scenes she describes straight out of a ‘real horror movie’ to being with people who see her in a new light. ‘I don’t have to be afraid of being dead at any minute,’ she says. She dreams of her parents left behind in Gaziantep and hopes they will find asylum in Germany as well. ‘I dream about my friends here as well and not bombs,’ says Nujeen, who now enjoys a game of wheelchair baseball with her peers. Her English skills came in handy in a meeting with the American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power. ‘Everyone wants to speak to me because I smile a lot,’ she explains matter-of-factly. Her only regret is she doesn’t have a family picture with her in Germany. Since 2011, more than five million Syrians have left the country. ‘We’re grateful to Germany for having us and we’re always trying to prove we’re good citizens. We’re the unofficial ambassadors of Syria and try all the time to showcase the best of our culture. But there comes a moment once in a while, when you’re struggling with a sentence, or can’t arrange your official papers or someone from your country creates trouble that people begin to look at you differently, that makes you realise you don’t belong here,’ says Nujeen. But, as she says, ‘I am not a number, I am not a report or part of a documentary. I’m part of this huge human tragedy. And I hope my story will encourage people to see us differently.’