This article originally appeared in the Marie Claire (January 2017)
After travelling more than 5 000km from Syria to Germany in a wheelchair, Nujeen Mustafa longs for a normal life and to ease the plight of refugees
Anxiety and excitement overcome Nujeen Mustafa. She knows that everything will change once she gets on the tiny boat in Behram, Turkey. The dinghy is already filled with passengers who, like herself, are escaping their war-torn homeland in the Middle East. But she can’t turn back because her family has spent thousands of dollars to ensure that Nujeen and her older sisters, Nasrine and Nahda, make it to Germany to join their older brother, who has been there for a few years.
Nujeen, a Kurdish-Syrian from Aleppo, has heard how treacherous this trip across the Aegean Sea is, and questions the durability of the inflatable boat that will transport her, her wheelchair, her sisters and 36 others from Turkey to Greece.
‘I didn’t realise how close death was. Just a small tear in the fabric from my wheelchair catching and we could have capsized, or a large wave could have turned the boat over at any moment,’ she writes in her memoir, Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from Wartorn Syria in a Wheelchair. Besides the boat sinking, 15-year-old Nujeen fears the dinghy might be intercepted by Turkish police and they will be detained or deported. At the time, in September 2015, Nujeen and her sisters had already been travelling for almost 1 600km, from Manbij in northern Syria to Behram.
For 11 long months, Nasrine had pushed her younger sister across all types of terrain: stony pathways and steep roads; at other times they had to wait for hours for their smugglers or to hide from police. They make it across the sea to Lesbos, but their journey is far from over. From the Greek island to Germany, they will endure another 4 000km of travelling plus a short but gruelling detention, filled with uncertainty, in Serbia.
‘My feeling at the time was excitement mixed with a lot of fear because I knew I was risking my life in many ways. But I knew I deserved a better life,’ says Nujeen during a call from Germany. As she recalls the 14-month-long journey, her positivity is infectious and her eloquence and assertiveness beyond her years.
It’s been more than a year since Nujeen and her sisters reached their new home in Wesseling, just outside Cologne, Germany. They share a two-bedroom apartment with Nadha’s four children. When we talk, it’s an exciting time for the teen. Nujeen’s memoir, about her life in Syria and her arduous journey to Europe in a wheelchair, has been published to impressive reviews; she’s preparing for her final year in high school and saying ‘goodbye childhood’ on her 18th birthday on 1 January 2017.
Born in Manbij, Nujeen, her siblings and her sheeptrader parents moved to Aleppo when she was a young girl. The last of nine children, 26 years younger than her oldest brother, Nujeen was born with tetra spasticity, a type of cerebral palsy.
‘Maybe because Ayee was quite old when she had me – 44 – I was born too soon,’ she writes in her book about her mother. ‘Something happened in my brain so the balance part doesn’t work and it doesn’t send proper signals to my legs. So they have a life of their own. They kick up when I am speaking, my ankles turn inwards, my toes point downwards, my heels curl up and I can’t walk.’
Since her arrival in Germany in September 2015, Nujeen has had physical therapy twice a week at her school. ‘I believe I am a lot more flexible now,’ she says. This is very different from her life in Syria, where she spent most of her time in the fifth-floor apartment she shared with her family. She did not attend school or go out much because of her severe asthma, which was aggravated by the dust in the city and the cigarette smokers – ‘just about all men in Syria smoke, and so do some women’.
When armed conflict broke out in Syria in 2011 after protesters called for the removal of long-time President Bashar al-Assad, followed by civil war the next year, Nujeen and her family were forced to stay indoors before fleeing to Manbij. Before the wars started, Nujeen had already developed a knack for collecting facts and information.
‘I don’t collect stamps or coins or football cards – I collect facts. Most of all facts about physics and space, particularly string theory.’ She learnt to speak English from watching satellite TV, consuming American soapie Days of our Lives and testing her smarts watching an Arabic version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. During the 2010 Fifa World Cup, which she watched with her footballloving family, ‘we learned all about South Africa and the cities,’ she says, and names the colours in the South African flag and the country’s major cities.
Books and the internet also became an invaluable source of knowledge. In Germany, Nujeen still collects facts and has developed an interest in psychology and space. She reads books when she’s not listening to Beethoven or Mozart. ‘I also listen to pop when I’m in a really bad mood and just want to be a teenager,’ she laughs.
Like all teenagers in Europe, Nujeen goes to school and 2017 marks her final year of high school. ‘A few years from now I will be a college girl,’ she says. She would like to study physics or literature ‘at the best university’. ‘I will work really hard and be totally stressed by exams. I see myself as a fluent German speaker with a normal life. And in the long term, I hope to go back.’
Despite being happy and grateful for her new life in Germany, where she is settled and has quickly grasped German, Nujeen says she’s started to miss home. ‘I’m growing quite nostalgic. Every song that reminds me of my childhood or anything Syrian makes me want to cry and go home. Where I am now is much better, but that doesn’t mean I hate where I have been or how my life was. I miss my childhood, the innocence and absence of responsibility, and being my parents’ spoilt kid.’
Recalling her mother, Nujeen says, ‘In the war, my mom would say the most important thing is that we are together and nothing happened to any of us.’ ‘Nothing’ you assume is a euphemism for getting hurt or even the unthinkable. And in the case of her life, ‘nothing’ has happened to any of her family members, but Nujeen and her parents are no longer together. Her mother and father are in Turkey; she speaks to them daily to get updates on their lives but Nujeen hopes they will reunite in Germany. Under German law, Syrian refugees under 18 are eligible to have their parents join them in Germany.
But when a refugee turns 18, that right expires. When Nujeen, who only has temporary residence, talks to me three months before she turns 18, she is concerned. ‘I am running out of time,’ she says. ‘When I get granted reunification, I will be able to see my parents. I try not to think about what would happen if I don’t get it because when I think about that, it makes me really sad.’
As Islamophobic sentiments persist across the West and the Eurozone mulls the influx of immigrants, the refugee crisis has become a polarising issue in Europe. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the country’s borders in 2015 to 10 000 refugees fleeing war zones, thousands more entered the country. Since her open-door policy came into effect in September 2015 – the month Nujeen got to Germany – the chancellor has been heavily criticised for her decision from within Germany and the Eurozone, but she is committed to the policy.
‘We decided to fulfil our humanitarian obligations. I did not say it would be easy. I said back then, and I will say it again now, that we can manage our historic task – and this is a historic test in times of globalisation – just as we have managed so much already. We can do it,’ Angela said.
Nujeen says she is committed to fighting for the equality of refugees. ‘Refugees are like everybody; there is good and bad, just like any society. I’m not angry with anyone, I wrote this book because I wanted to play my part in changing the perception of refugees. We are all human and we should be thought of as a human fi rst.’ Before we say goodbye, Nujeen shares her joy in knowing that people in ‘Madiba’s country know about my story’.
And when I ask who she looks up to, she says, ‘I don’t have role models because everyone has character fl aws. I have my own thoughts and ideas about the world, and I would like to do my best to make it a better place. I used to wonder if I was delusional for being optimistic during tough times, but then I discovered that I was not wrong for being who I am.’
Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair, by Nujeen Mustafa with Christina Lamb (R295, Jonathan Ball Publishers)