From Syria to Germany in a wheelchair
The Girl From Aleppo review: Teenager Nujeen Mustafa finds her voice on a heroic journey
Nujeen Mustafa and her sister Nasrine near the Serbia-Croatia border in September 2015. Photograph: AFP/Getty
The Girl From Aleppo
Nujeen Mustafa with Christine Lamb
The story of wheelchair-bound 16-year-old Nujeen Mustafa’s journey from Aleppo to Wesseling, near Cologne, did not simply involve travelling 5,782 kilometres in difficult circumstances. The voyage opened psychological, social and cultural vistas for Nujeen and her family. The wheelchair pushed by elder sister Nasrine transported Nujeen, afflicted by cerebral palsy, from the deeply conservative culture of rural Syria to 21st-century Europe.
The wary sisters were compelled to open to well-met fellow refugees who lifted or propelled the clumsy wheelchair along a sandy shore or up steep slopes. While travelling over land and sea by private car, plane, rubber raft, boat, train, taxi and bus, introverted Nujeen shed the silk cocoon spun round her by a protective family. She emerged confident and coping with a new world, although shocked when warfare in the Middle East intruded with attacks mounted by Islamic State.
Nujeen is Kurdish, from a peasant family. Her illiterate father had a flock of sheep and goats when the family lived in their tribal village near Kobane in northern Syria. A feud drove them to the gritty Arab Bedouin town of Manbij, where Nujeen’s older sisters attended school. Nujeen sat on the dusty doorstep of their two-room house. To provide her with medical care, and her sisters with a university education, the Mustafa family moved to a four-room fifth-floor flat in a largely Kurdish neighbourhood in Aleppo, and acquired satellite television.
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Unable to navigate the stairs, Nujeen spent her days watching US soaps, engrossed in Days of Our Lives, National Geographic documentaries and history programmes, and acquiring a grasp of English. A computer indulged her hobby: collecting facts and figures, which she shared with her bored family.
Nujeen’s English later promoted her to translator on the journey through Turkey, Greece and eastern Europe, giving her a central role for the first time in her short life.
Once settled in Germany, she quickly learned German and how to dress herself and drive a sleek new wheelchair in games of basketball. She has attained her dream of going to school, where she excels in English and German and in providing historical, scientific and Hollywood facts.
While urging their children to emigrate, her parents, arguing that they were too old to change, themselves remained in the city of Gaziantep, a catchment area for Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, where Syrian Kurdish children cannot go to school and adults cannot find work except as poorly paid illegals.
Nujeen became a refugee celebrity when she was interviewed by the BBC’s Fergal Keane and other journalists en route to Germany. She told him she wanted to be an astronaut and go to London to meet the Queen. After she expressed anger when the main characters in Days of Our Lives were killed off, the actors got in touch and were reborn in a sequel just for Nujeen. Keane introduced Nujeen to Christine Lamb, a British journalist who co-authored I Am Malala with Malala Yusafzai.
Nujeen’s story begins slowly, told in spare language suitable for a young adult book, but picks up as a general read when Lamb slips into Nujeen’s voice and character.
Nujeen, who celebrated her 17th birthday in Germany, is a lively girl with a sharp sense of humour and the ability to joke about her “disability benefits”, particularly blessings during the arduous journey that accorded her and her sister special treatment. While embracing Germany, this transplanted family tries to adhere to traditional social, cultural and religious values to preserve their identity as Kurds rooted in Syria.