Af­ter trav­el­ling more than 5,700km over land, sea and air and en­dur­ing un­told hard­ships, Syr­ian refugee Nu­jeen Mustafa fi­nally re­alised her dream – of find­ing a safe place to live. She shares her amaz­ing story with Esha Nag

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

Nu­jeen Mustafa trav­elled from war-hit Syria to Ger­many on a wheel­chair and has now co-au­thored a book. She talks to Fri­day about her ‘ad­ven­tures’.

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.’

Be­ing re­source­ful

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

‘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 BANGED them­selves on the FENCE, their faces showed no EX­PRES­SION’

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.’


<GER­MANY <AUS­TRIA SLOVE­NIA> Nu­jeen has made it across nine coun­tries, from war to peace <CROA­TIA <SER­BIA <MACE­DO­NIA <TURKEY <GREECE <SYRIA

Nu­jeen’s par­ents dressed in tra­di­tional Kur­dish cos­tume Us­ing just about ev­ery mode of trans­port, Nu­jeen, with help from her sis­ter Nas­rine, ar­rived in Ger­many

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