AS REFUGEES

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

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Q&A -

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”

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