Days of our lives... LAST YEAR, AGED 16, NUJEEN MUSTAFA FLED HER WAR-TORN HOME OF ALEPPO IN SYRIA. SHE AND HER SISTER NASRINE CROSSED EUROPE TO SAFETY – AND, BECAUSE NUJEEN HAS TETRA-SPASTICITY AND CAN’T WALK, SHE DID IT ALL IN A WHEELCHAIR
Ihate the word refugee more than any word in the English language. In German it is Flüchtling, which is just as harsh. What it really means is a second-class citizen with a number scrawled on your hand or printed on a wristband, who everyone wishes would somehow go away. The year 2015 was when I became a fact, a statistic, a number. Much as I like facts, we are not numbers, we are human beings and we all have stories. This is mine.
paid extra for it just to be the 38 of us, instead of 50 or so, it was still more than double the “15 Max” it said on the box, particularly with my wheelchair, and it felt very squashed.
Many people had closed their eyes and were praying. Nasrine was crouching on the floor trying to hold my chair still. To start with, it was nice to feel the spray after being in the hot sun all day. Finally, the T-shirt I had worn for days was getting a wash. But as waves pitched us up and down, some of my cousins started retching. Others were crying and screaming, “Oh God!”
At one point a wave tossed us right to one side and my aunt lost her bag with all her valuables. We seemed very low in the water. My cousins used their shoes to scoop water out of the dinghy. “We should never have brought the wheelchair,” someone said.
I felt I should be worried – I knew this water might be our grave. And of course I can’t swim. I’d never been in water. None of us could swim. Yet sitting in my wheelchair, higher than everyone else, I thought of myself like Poseidon, God of the Sea, in his chariot.
“Look how beautiful it is!” I cried as we were tossed up and down. I laughed every time we were hit by another wave. “You need a psychiatrist, laughing here,” said someone. Actually I was praying, too, but quietly. Just a small tear in the dinghy’s fabric from my wheelchair catching and we could have capsized, or a large wave could have turned the boat over at any moment.
We didn’t know it, but that’s what happened to another Syrian family making the crossing earlier that day. In a dinghy like ours were 16 Syrians, including a barber called Abdullah Kurdi, his wife Rehanna and their two boys, five-year-old Ghalib and threeyear-old Aylan. A large wave flipped the dinghy, tossing everyone out. Abdullah tried to cling on to his family but one after the other they were washed away.
The next day the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi lying face down dead in the surf on a Turkish beach went round the world. When I saw it later on Facebook, I thought that could have been me.
For a normal person, the ferry from western Turkey to Mitilini, the capital of Lesbos, costs 10 euros and takes 90 minutes. To make the same crossing as refugees had taken us 12 days to arrange and cost us each $1500.
We had been at sea three and a half hours and the sun was setting and we were starting to shiver, when suddenly there was the island rising ahead of us. Soon we could make out people waiting on the shore. “Does anybody speak English?” we heard someone shout. “I do!” I called out. It was the first time I had spoken English to a real English-speaker.
“MY COUSINS USED THEIR SHOES TO SCOOP WATER OUT OF THE DINGHY. ‘WE SHOULD NEVER HAVE BROUGHT THE WHEELCHAIR,’ SOMEONE SAID”