Nujeen Mustafa's epic wheelchair journey from Syria to Germany

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 13 October 2016
Nujeen Mustafa

Syrian teenager, Nujeen Mustafa, who has cerebral palsy, left her homeland beginning a 16 month odyssey with her sister Nisreen, to ultimately reach the safety of Europe.

Travelling by boat, bus, train, and taxi across Turkey, the Mediterranean to Greece, through Macedonia to Serbia and then finally making it to the Hungarian border and then Germany.

The UK Sunday Times journalist, author and foreign correspondent, Christina Lamb has co- written her story with her.

Read an edited excerpt from the interview below:

Nujeen, as a 16-year-old deciding to leave home, how did you come to make that decision?

We recently ran out of choices. We realised this was our only chance to get to Germany, to a better life and that was my only chance to comfort my parents. To tell them that I’m okay. It was a very hard decision on them, as it was on me, because I was their spoilt child. But I had to do it and face the real world with its misery and happiness, because I know that I’m going to go through really different experiences.

So you were prepared for what you were to go through?

I was prepared, psychologically and internally I was, but I realised that I had really embarrassing moments when you’re just in shock about seeing everything for the first time. So I said, “Pull yourself together, don’t look so weird.”

Just being outside was a big change for you, wasn’t it?

It was new and I finally get the chance to use my language after two years of learning so I was pretty happy and suddenly everyone was calling my name, “Nujeen, can you translate for us, please do it.”. so I was pretty happy to be useful and that is the most beautiful thing of all, to be useful and to do your part.

This long trek that you did would have been demanding and gruelling for anybody. You travelled with your sister Nisreen, who would have been particularly important to you on this journey, wouldn’t she have? Would you have done it alone?

I don’t think so but this journey made the age gap between us more obvious, because I was the teenager, more outgoing and really excited and I’m sure she tried to not show her fears and she never showed me what she thought of the responsibility of having such a companion with her. I sometimes thought of myself as an obstacle, but sometimes you have to be selfish person.

Well it sounds like things like your translation was very helpful. Now you did pay smugglers to go on a dinghy. These are the kinds of horror stories that we hear in New Zealand, of overcrowded dinghies. Was that one of the most terrifying parts of your long journey?

Of course I was afraid because of the wheelchair. The dinghy was brought to us and they told my uncle to drive it. He didn’t know how to do so and then we realised that he had watched some videos about how to drive a dinghy. He proved to be a really good driver of a dinghy. But of course, I found it a little bit weird because everyone is praying and crying and had a really salty shower.

It was particularly dangerous when you think about it because had the dinghy overturned, some people might be able to swim to safety, but with your condition it would have been very dangerous for you.

Yes, but I believe in God and this looked like something from a movie or something. It was a black and white thing. Either I am going to die and this water is going to be my prey or I will have a new life. So it was really fitting, the situation.

As well as all of the physical demands and the dangers, you had no idea whether you would be accepted into Germany or any other country. Were you aware of this beforehand with so many refugees and borders being closed that after everything you and your family were going through, you still might not find a home where you would be accepted?

No, I knew that I was going to get into Germany as soon as I left my doorstep, that I was going to do it if I didn’t die in the sea. If we got to Greece, I am going to get to Germany, it’s okay. So if I didn’t die, I am going to get there.