This Girl Escaped From a Syrian War Zone in a Wheelchair

Born with cerebral palsy, Nujeen Mustafa spent most of her life in an Aleppo apartment—until she made the 3,500-mile journey to Germany.

Teenager Nujeen Mustafa spent most of her life confined to her family’s fifth-floor apartment in Aleppo, Syria. Born with cerebral palsy, Nujeen’s only connection to the wider world was the satellite dish on the roof. But last year she was forced to flee Aleppo when pro-Assad forces intensified their campaign of terror. Her family didn’t have enough money for all of them to make it to safety in Germany, where her brother lives, so her parents stayed in Turkey while she set out—Nujeen in a wheelchair, and her sister Nasrine pushing her.

In Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey From War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair, veteran foreign correspondent Christina Lamb helps Nujeen tell her story, recounting how the girls overcame smugglers, dangerously leaky dinghies, and razor wire to reach freedom. (Find out how massive migration is reshaping Europe.)

When National Geographic caught up with Lamb by phone at her home in London, she explained why Nujeen called herself a "pay-as-you-go" migrant, how a National Geographic TV show helped her fight stress, and why she feels the world’s leaders are not doing their homework over Aleppo.


COURTESY WILLIAM COLLINS BOOKS

Introduce us to this extraordinary girl. How did you meet Nujeen?

In September last year I was in Hungary, where they’d been building this big fence. The day they closed the border I was on the Hungarian side and a lot of people couldn’t cross from the Serbian side. At that time about 3,000 to 4,000 people per day were crossing. Among them was Nujeen in her wheelchair.

She’d been pushed to the front because people thought the Hungarians would feel sorry for a girl in a wheelchair and open the door. In fact, they didn’t. I could not speak to her that day because I was on the other side of the fence. I later heard an interview that the BBC’s Fergal Keane had done with Nujeen. And I was fascinated. The idea of somebody making this really difficult journey in a wheelchair seemed astonishing.

See the Raw Emotion of Life as a Refugee Watch a harrowing boat landing on the Greek island of Lesbos in this striking short film.

One thing all refugees have is a smart phone. Otherwise you can’t get information about where to go, smugglers, and routes. So I got her contacts, then met up with her and her sister. By then they had got to Germany so they were at the end of their journey.

One million two hundred thousand people have crossed Europe, but after a while the stories merge into each other. For many people it’s a divisive issue. Many people are very anti-refugees or migrants. So this was a way of saying, hang on a minute! Here’s a real human being who can make you laugh and you can sympathize with, who just wants to have an ordinary life, get up and brush her teeth in the morning, go to school, and be safe to come home again in the evening.

On her journey from Syria to Germany, Nujeen travelled over 3,500 miles, all in a wheelchair. Give us a brief route map—and explain some of the obstacles she overcame.

Bear in mind, this is a girl who had basically never been out of her apartment in Aleppo before they left. She lived in a fifth-floor apartment where they had no elevators, so there was no way of her getting down unless somebody carried her. She’d never been in a bus, train, boat, or plane. Everything was new.

They traveled north from Aleppo to a place called Manbij, which was the first town that the Syrian rebels took over. But later ISIS moved in. People were being beheaded, women were being forced to wear hijabs, so they decided to flee. They traveled to Turkey but, like many Syrians, realized that this war could go on for a very long time, so they decided to make the journey to Europe. They flew to Izmir, in northern Turkey, which is where most people start off because there are a lot of people smugglers who can then get you in the boats across to Greece.

It took a while because to travel in a wheelchair on those boats is dangerous at the best of times. These rubber dinghies are supposed to take a maximum of 15 people, but 50 to 60 people were packing into them. She was also in a metal wheelchair that could at any time have punctured the boat. Some in-laws she was traveling with said, “If it gets really rough, we’ll toss the wheelchair out.” Fortunately, they didn’t.

The very day they crossed was the same day that little three-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, was washed up on the Turkish shore. He was Kurdish, like them, and Nujeen and her sister say that if they’d have known about that before they crossed they might not have made the journey.

On Lesbos, in Greece, where they landed, they spent about a week getting papers to go to Athens, and from Athens they went to Salonika and then into Macedonia. That was the first really difficult place because by the time they got there the border guards in these countries were getting fed up with having so many people come through. Macedonia started tear gassing people to drive them back, but they managed to get across and then went into Serbia.


A bomb explodes in a residential area of Aleppo, the Syrian town that Nujeen and her family fled.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MAHMUD FAYSAL, ANADOLU AGENCY, GETTY

At one point, Nujeen jokes that she and her sister are “pay-as-you-go" migrants. Explain what she means.

Some people pay a “people smuggler” at the beginning to do the whole journey. Others do what Nujeen did, which is find somebody each day. A lot of time it wasn’t people smugglers but taxi drivers or trains, paying at each stage as they went along. One of the things people don’t realize about refugees is that it’s expensive doing this trip. It cost them about 6,000 Euros.

As people go along, they pick up money relatives send through Western Union along the way. Her family wasn’t well off. Her father used to sell a few sheep and goats, but she had a brother, Mustafa, who had done quite well digging water wells and then selling cars. He funded everybody, though ironically he’s still stuck in Syria himself.

Nujeen also gives us a checklist of essentials for being a successful migrant. Talk us through the list.

The phone is essential. If you’ve nothing else, you need a phone because people swap information on Facebook groups or What’s App about the best routes. These kept changing as some countries, such as Hungary, closed their borders.

You need money. And Nujeen says it was very useful to speak English because she could communicate along the way and ended up translating for lots of other people. She’d always felt she was no use to anybody because she couldn’t walk. But on the journey, she found that she could help people by interpreting for them. She writes that the other essential, in her case, was a sister to push her along. [Laughs]


Refugees crowd razor-wire fence near the town of Kanjiza, Serbia, after the border with Hungary was closed.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARPAD KURUCZ, ANADOLU AGENCY, GETTY

Despite the difficulties, she often treats the journey as an adventure—when she gets to Austria, for instance, she rhapsodizes about The Sound of Music. [Laughs]

Nujeen is a person who has collected a phenomenal amount of information. Anything you tell her or she sees on TV, she remembers immediately. She Googled the route before they left Aleppo and was excited to be going to these places. In Serbia she wanted to go see the restaurant owned by her favorite tennis player, Novak Djokovic.

Bear in mind, she was constantly being bumped around in the wheelchair. But in all of our discussions, she never once said to me it was unpleasant or painful. She also says she didn’t realize quite how serious it all was until they were in Slovenia and got locked up in a detention center.

When they got to Germany she even said she felt sad it was the end of the journey. She thought, “I’m going to go back to my old life, just being the girl shut up in the room, not able to get out.” In fact, at her excellent special-needs school in Germany, she has learned things she could never do in Syria, like play wheelchair basketball and dress herself.

A few years ago, you co-wrote a book with another Muslim girl whose courage inspired the world. Is Nujeen the new Malala?

[Laughs] Yes, it feels like I’m making a career of writing about 16- or 17-year-old inspirational girls. I can’t imagine anyone ever being another Malala but the attraction for me in both of them is that they’ve both lived through some astonishing events in their countries and taken very risky journeys in different ways.

Both of them are very keen on education. Malala obviously risked her life to go to school. Nujeen didn’t have the chance to go to school because in Syria there were no facilities for the disabled. But she taught herself English by watching TV, and has this phenomenal knowledge of history and science from watching documentaries.

Other similarities that made them easy to work with are that they both have a great sense of humor. Malala is a very good mimic and likes to tell jokes. Nujeen also laughs a lot and looks on the bright side. My work as a journalist mostly involved reporting on grim and horrible things, so it’s nice working with people who, despite all that, are upbeat.

Nujeen has an extraordinarily rich and imaginative life, much of it inspired by TV, which she calls “my school and my friend.” One program had a very special meaning for her, didn’t it?

She became obsessed by the longest running American soap opera Days of Our Lives, especially the love story between E.J. and Sami. In Germany, she did a couple of interviews with American channels and talked about Days of Our Lives. One of the writers of the show saw this and made a special segment on the John Oliver show where E.J. and Sami, who by then were no longer in the series, came back together and talked about Nujeen. The idea that these people she’d watched and fantasized about in Syria for years were suddenly speaking to her was astonishing!

She also used to watch a lot of National Geographic documentaries in Syria. One of them came in useful on the journey. When they were waiting to cross from Turkey to Greece by dinghy, the sea started getting rougher. It was an old dinghy with a patch and they were worried about [water] getting into it. She calmed herself by remembering the Brain Games program about how to combat stress.

The horrific news from Aleppo, Nujeen’s hometown, continues unabated. Is she disappointed that the West has not intervened?

I saw her about 10 days ago, and the first thing she said was, “I’m cross!” I said, Why are you cross? She’s had just had braces fitted on her teeth and I thought it might have been that. But she was happy about that. She was cross about Aleppo. She said, “I feel world leaders are not doing their homework. I have to do math homework. Their homework should be saving lives, and they’re not doing it.”

What impressed you most about Nujeen? And why is her story important, particularly for young people?

Her spirit. She never let anything defeat her, despite her disability and the terrible things happening to Syria. She always keeps on the bright side, trying to educate herself and help show people that refugees are real people, like us. They’re not statistics. They have stories and this is her story. [Pauses] And her smile. She has a wonderful smile!

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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