Nujeen Mustafa conquered more than the usual challenges when she fled the Syrian war two years ago. Born with cerebral palsy, the teenager became famous for making the hazardous journey to Europe in her wheelchair. Her defiance and resilience, recently documented in a memoir, have already inspired millions. Now a refugee in Germany, Nujeen has her sights fixed on an even brighter future.
Armed with an extraordinary brain and an iron will, 18-year-old Nujeen is determinedly adjusting to her new life in Europe. Alongside attending school for the first time and rapidly learning German, she still finds time to use her newfound prominence as a platform for positive change.
“We need some optimism in the world,” says Nujeen, who now lives with her family in Wesseling, a small city in western Germany. "I always believed everyone’s here for a mission, but I hadn’t found mine yet. Now I have a voice, I can help people.”
"Now I have a voice, I can help people.”
Nujeen was born in Manbij, in northern Syria, into a large Kurdish family who moved to Aleppo when she was young. Her parents couldn’t afford the fees for a school that could accommodate her, so she spent most of her early life inside, watching documentaries in her family’s fifth-floor apartment. This month, she gave a talk at TEDxExeter in the UK and has re-released her book, "The girl from Aleppo".
Nujeen remembers watching a news report one day six years ago when the unrest in the streets outside her window heralded the start of the Syrian conflict. She never dreamed it would kickstart the series of events that led her to a new life in Europe.
“I’ve really grown to appreciate what I have in the last two years because I know what it means not to have these things," she says, eager to demonstrate the near-fluent German she learned in under 18 months. "If someone told me back then I was going to have this stable life, I would have said they’re crazy. I wasn’t sure if I was going to wake up the next day. None of us were.”
As the war intensified, Nujeen and her family escaped Aleppo for northern Syria, before eventually crossing the border to Turkey. There, the family split. Nujeen’s brother Bland went ahead to join their eldest brother, Shiar, who had settled in Germany a decade earlier. Soon after, in September 2015, Nujeen, her four young nieces and two sisters followed, leaving their parents behind.
Nujeen remembers the moment she was photographed by UNHCR photographer Ivor Prickett, being lifted out of a flimsy dinghy after washing up on the Greek island of Lesvos. “I had been in Europe five minutes and I was already famous,” she laughs. Before long, her face was flashing up on news bulletins across the world.
“You’re in a constant test, you want to prove to be a good ambassador of your country,” Nujeen adds. “People don’t realize how hard we’re all trying to rebuild our lives from zero. I’d say to them: Try to get to know us. There’s more inside us and inside you than everyone thinks.”
That process of rebuilding can be deeply frustrating. Nujeen had hoped to apply for her parents, still living in Turkey, to join her as part of the family reunification procedures. But her asylum application took so long to be approved that she is now too old to do so. Her residency came through in December, just a month before she turned 18.
Now that she’s legally an adult, Nujeen’s parents are no longer eligible to join her. Family reunification is generally limited to members of the core family, including spouses, parents and minor children.
“UNHCR calls on states to consider the individual circumstances of a refugee family and demonstrate flexibility in considering other family members eligible for family reunification, where they formed part of a household, affected by flight and separation, and are dependent on each other,” says UNHCR Representative Katharina Lumpp in Berlin.
"I’m going to try to make people believe in a better tomorrow.”
Daily life for Nujeen now centres around the flat she shares with her brother, two sisters and four young nieces. Every day, a bus picks her up and takes her to a school for children with disabilities. There, she has physical therapy to help with her condition. “Being disabled doesn’t define me, what I am, who I am or what I can do," she says. "There are so many less lucky than I am now. I may have a nice flat and can go to school, but people are still suffering. What scares me the most is that me, my family, my people will just be a number on a forgotten page in history. I’m going to do my best to work against that.”
Nujeen hopes to study physics at university. “I love space, I want to be an astronaut,” she says. “I’d like to look for aliens. It’s the biggest unsolved mystery. I want to know, are we alone?”
“I never give up hope. God didn’t create me to be miserable. I want to find happiness in the little things I have and have others be happy, no matter how bad and dark the situation seems. Nothing lasts forever, even war. I’m going to try to make people believe in a better tomorrow.”