The first time 17-year-old Nujeen Mustafa saw the sea, she and her wheelchair were hauled on to an overcrowded dinghy headed for Europe.
Growing up in the Syrian cities of Manbij and Aleppo, Mustafa – who was born with cerebral palsy – rarely left the house.
Last September, Mustafa traveled 3,500 miles across hostile borders and perilous seas to Germany in a wheelchair, with the help of her sister.
She describes the odyssey in a new book “Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair,” co-authored by veteran British journalist Christina Lamb.
A year after her journey, Mustafa lives outside Cologne, Germany, with two of her sisters and four nieces. In Syria, she was largely self-taught and learned English by watching American soap opera “Days of our Lives.” She now attends a school for people with disabilities and has learned German.
Meanwhile, Mustafa is still waiting for documents to allow her to stay in Germany and apply for her parents to join her from Turkey.
Refugees Deeply: What are your happiest memories of Syria?
Nujeen Mustafa: I mostly remember my home, the city, the balcony and our family gatherings to watch soccer. That was really fun.
Refugees Deeply: What do you wish more people would know about why people like your family are leaving Syria?
Mustafa: I’ve come to realize that people who have left wars, or witnessed wars, have just become numbers, and they are usually forgotten. It is the politicians who are the ones who are mentioned, and they are not good people for people to read about. I am terrified that in 50 years I’ll hear the names of the people who caused this tragedy in my country, and they’ll be the ones who are remembered, and not me or my family.
Refugees Deeply: What do you hope people would learn from reading your book?
Mustafa: The goal of the book was that people should not think of us as aliens. I speak the words of many other people when I say we are trying really hard, and we are trying to adapt ourselves to the new style of everything. People have to understand, living as a refugee is not easy. I’m not eager to learn German grammar. To rebuild your life from the zero point is not an easy thing to do.
When you end up sensing that people are skeptical, or are mean to you, after all you’ve been through, this is a really unpleasant feeling because you feel like a stranger, like an outcast. I’d like to reassure everyone that we are only guests – I hate the word “refugee” – and if we ever get the chance, we will gladly go back.
Refugees Deeply: What were the best and worst moments in your journey from Syria to Germany?
Mustafa: The best moment was when we decided to go. You think: “I’m going to pass a whole continent, and I’m going to be so far from home.” I told my sister, “This is going to be fun! You’ll never have this experience again in your whole life.”
Because I had this circle of people in my family that were trustworthy and my life was totally normal apart from not going to school, I think that caused me to be oblivious to how my condition was. So even with the wheelchair I thought, let’s try it, we have to do it. You never know what you are capable of until you try. The worst fear was death, but the journey looked possible. Either it would be death, or a new life.
The worst parts were the registration, the fear of getting fingerprinted, that you have to trust Google to know where you’re going and you are surrounded by police all the time. They treat you well, but you also feel like something they will gladly get rid of.
Refugees Deeply: How did doing this journey change you?
Mustafa: Now I know what I’m capable of doing, and that made me more determined, because I know more about what I can do. The reaction of other people to my journey really shocked me. My life was so normal to me, I forgot that it’s going to be considered a weird thing for a wheelchair user who didn’t go to school, to speak English and do this journey across Europe. I was really happy, because I have people’s support, I have friends and to feel useful was awesome.
Now I’m just happy that I’m away from bombing, from helicopters and cluster bombs. Even though it’s a really high-cost thing, because I left behind my family.
Refugees Deeply: In what ways has life in Germany been different to what you expected?
Mustafa: In many ways! Instead of waiting for lunch, I’m waiting to do my next interview. Also getting up early, doing stuff teenagers here do, and the sense of security. You have this internal peace in your heart. You dare to look forward to things, because there is no fear.
I had some difficulties. When I arrived in Germany I thought: “Oh my God, am I going to start speaking like them? Do things like they do?” You have to learn the German language very fast. At school, I was a little intimidated at first because I didn’t understand them well, and they’re always expecting something new, but you get used to it and now it’s fine.
I thought of it as the start of my new life, so I was happy for the challenge. I’m turning 18 years old soon, and it’s time to face life.
Refugees Deeply: What do you hope to do next?
Mustafa: I’m in ninth grade right now and I have one year left at school. I will try to do my best and be the best. I have this tendency to be number one. I’m a perfectionist and that’s crazy. I get a headache when my sisters’ pronunciation of German is totally bad, and it gets on my nerves.
I think when you’re in a new society, you tend to want to prove yourself, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m also trying not to appear awkward and adapt myself to the German lifestyle.
After school, plan A is to study physics and become an astronaut. Plan B is to continue writing. I will write about anything I know – it may be sport, or it may be stories because I have a really wild imagination. The six American winners of the Nobel prize were all immigrants, and I think that’s proof how useful immigrants can be to countries. I will try to help Germany; I will try to do my part.
As soon as I get my residence permit, I will apply for my passport and then I think directly we will fly back to Turkey to see my parents.
Refugees Deeply: Do you think it is more difficult for people with disabilities who become refugees?
Mustafa: As I said earlier, you never know what you are capable of. But I always think of people who are stuck in Syria with disabilities. I know how hard it is to wait for death to come. I think no matter what you should be happy you are alive. I think we must all have faith in God. No one is an extra number of the world’s population. I understand that our society does not understand people with disabilities as people in Europe do, but I think we can maintain hope, and hope for the best. I always say, nothing lasts forever. Even war does not.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
“NUJEEN: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair” is in bookstores now, published by Harper Wave. Read an excerpt from the book here.