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My Voyage From Syria to Europe in a Wheelchair

Nujeen Mustafa, a Syrian teenager born with cerebral palsy, fled to Europe last year in a wheelchair. In an excerpt from “Nujeen,” a new book telling her story, she describes crossing the Aegean Sea on the same day that 3-year-old Alan Kurdi died.

Written by Nujeen Mustafa and Christina Lamb Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Nujeen and her sister Nasrine near the Croatian village of Tovarnik, close to the Serbia-Croatia border on September 16, 2015.AFP/STR

Behram to Lesbos, Wednesday 2nd September 2015

From the sea the island looked much further away. Our dark grey dinghy was very small. Even though we had paid extra just to be the 38 of us, which was much better than the 50 or so we had seen crammed into earlier boats, it was still more than double the “15 Max” it said on the box, particularly with my wheelchair, and it felt very squashed.

Like everything I was doing, it was my first time on a boat. I felt like a 6-year-old girl not a 16-year-old.

“Why are you nervous?” asked Nasrine. “I am not nervous, I’m excited doing everything for the first time,” I replied. “It’s not excitement, it’s fear,” she said. “Don’t be afraid.”

She never showed her own fear because she knew everything she did would affect me. She was the one who knew the outside world and I took all my cues on how to react from her.

I did my deep breathing from Brain Games and looked around the boat at everyone. We were all spaced out from two days with little sleep, then being in the hot sun with nothing to drink. My three cousins whose mother and father had been shot were sad and quiet. Many people had closed their eyes and were praying. Nasrine was crouching on the floor trying to hold my chair still.

Our elder sister Nahda didn’t look at the sea. Her baby and the three little girls were all crying and she was focused on calming them. She was stressed because she’d decided to take her children out of the poisoned environment of war to somewhere they could get on with life, go to school, but now it seemed like a big responsibility for a 33-year-old alone and she wondered what she had done.

Uncle Ahmed was all furrow-browed trying to drive the boat. He’d spent the last two days in the hotel in Izmir studying YouTube videos on how to do it. At the start he gunned the engine too much and we shot forward then zigzagged a bit as he tried to correct the course. “Look out!” shouted Aunt Shereen as we bumped right into a wave and water came over the sides.

The sea was much less calm than it had looked earlier in the day. To start with, it was nice to feel the spray after being in the hot sun all day. Finally, my “Young Forever Love” 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. Sometimes people threw things off but we didn’t have much. “We should never have brought the wheelchair,” said Mahmud.

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. I tried to imagine the Hippocampus, the half-horse half-fish that towed it along, and fancied that through the spray of mist I could see the Nereides, the daughters of Poseidon, riding the horse fish, tossing their long hair and laughing in the wind.

I smiled at the thought. “Look, Nahda, how beautiful it is!” 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. “You need a psychiatrist, laughing here,” said someone. Actually I was praying too, but quietly.

I didn’t realize 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.

We were so intent on our own boat that we didn’t see what happened to the other three leaving with us. But Mustafa, scrambling up the cliff to follow our journey with binoculars and report back to our parents, was horrified.

As he watched, the first boat left with the waves and was quickly overturned. We were the second boat to go. The third got much of the way and overturned close to the island, leaving the people to swim. The fourth was picked up by the Turkish coastguard.

Mustafa was in tears on the phone to my father because he didn’t know if it was us. In fact we were better off as there were fewer of us compared with the other boats, and Uncle Ahmed’s YouTube lessons had proved useful. He went against the waves instead of with them and got us to sit more on the side where the waves were hitting the boat to keep it down.

After a while a mist came down and we could no longer see Lesbos ahead. I hoped we were going the right way. Mahmud kept looking at my wheelchair. I knew we had agreed that if it became a danger we would throw it into the sea, but surely he wouldn’t really do that.

I kept an eye out for pirates and Turkish coastguards, but the only people at sea seemed to be refugees. Hundreds of people were making the crossing every day and two other dinghies were not far behind us. I didn’t realize 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.

That’s what happened to another Syrian family making the crossing the same day. We didn’t know then but crossing earlier that day in those choppy waters a little south of us from the Bodrum Peninsula to Kos was a dinghy like ours. Inside were 16 Syrians including a barber called Abdullah Kurdi, his wife Rehanna and their two little boys, 5-year-old Ghalib and 3-year-old Alan. Like us, they were Kurds from Kobane and were hoping to start a new life in Germany.

NUJEEN: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair” is in book stores now, published by Harper Wave.

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