When Nujeen Mustafa fled war-torn Syria in 2015, she had no idea that her story would inspire people around the world.
Of course, the journey from her hometown of Aleppo to her brother’s home in Cologne, Germany, was very dangerous. However, she traveled all 3,500 miles without taking a single step. Nujeen has cerebral palsy, a disease that makes her unable to walk. The book that tells her story, Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair, was released in October.
The Syrian Civil War
Starting in 2010, citizens throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa began asking their governments for more freedom. These protests became known as the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring met with strong government resistance. In March 2011, Syrian protesters faced police and military forces. Many accuse Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, of using violence against peaceful protesters. President Assad, however, maintains that the protesters are actually armed rebels who want to harm Syria.
Currently, the worst fighting in the Syrian Civil War is in Nujeen Mustafa’s home city, Aleppo. The battle is being fought between the western and eastern halves of the city. The west is held by the Syrian military, while the east is held by anti-government rebels. So far, hundreds of thousands of citizens have had to flee the war-torn city, creating a huge refugee population.
Nujeen Mustafa spent most of her first 16 years confined to her family’s apartment. Since the building had no elevators and Nujeen can’t walk, she couldn’t leave unless someone carried her. She had never traveled in a bus, train, boat, or plane.
Because Aleppo didn’t have schools for people with disabilities like cerebral palsy, Nujeen learned by watching television. She found out about history and science from documentaries. By watching American soap operas, she learned English.
Her family left Aleppo when the fighting worsened in 2015. Travel was expensive. They had traveled as far as the country of Turkey when her parents sent Nujeen and her sister ahead to Germany while they stayed behind. The sisters then traveled alone—Nujeen in her wheelchair with her older sister Nasrine available to push her. They traveled in taxis, trains, and boats.
Life on the Road
Many migrants from Syria used social networking websites like Facebook and Whatsapp to learn about the best routes to travel, so the sisters soon realized that their smartphone was key to their success. Nujeen discovered that speaking English was useful, too. At first she thought cerebral palsy would make her a burden, but soon she was able to help other migrants by translating Arabic into English.
Once in Germany, Nujeen was actually sad. She was worried that she would again be confined to a small apartment. Germany, however, has schools for people with disabilities like cerebral palsy. Nujeen was able to learn German, as well as learn to play wheelchair basketball.
Currently, Nujeen is waiting for papers that will allow her to stay in Germany. She has also applied for papers that will allow her parents to travel from Turkey and join her in Germany. Until then, she speaks with them daily through Skype, a communication app.
Nujeen said she had no idea that her story would touch so many. “The reaction of other people to my journey really shocked me,” she said. “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.”
Read an excerpt from Nujeen’s book at Harper Broadcast.