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A 16-Year-Old's Escape From Syria, In A Wheelchair

Nujeen Mustafa didn't realize fleeing from Syria to Europe in a wheelchair would be considered extraordinary. Now in Germany, she has written a book about her journey.

Nujeen and her sister waiting for a bus to take them to a camp in Germany
Nujeen and her sister waiting for a bus to take them to a camp in Germany
Charlotte Alfred*

COLOGNE — The first time Nujeen Mustafa ever 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 arrive in Germany in a wheelchair, with the help of her sister.

The now 17-year-old 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. Syria Deeply spoke with her:

SYRIA 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.

What do you wish more people knew about why people like your family are leaving Syria?

I've come to realize that people who have left wars, or witnessed wars, have just become numbers, and they are usually forgotten. The politicians are the ones who get mentioned, and 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, not me or my family.

What do you hope people will learn from reading your book?

The goal of the book was that people should not think of us as aliens. I speak for many when I say we are trying really hard to adapt to the new style of everything. People have to understand, living as a refugee is not easy, rebuilding your life from zero isn't easy, learning German grammar isn't easy!

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 — 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.

What were the best and worst moments in your journey from Syria to Germany?

The best moment was when we decided to go. You think: "I'm going to cross 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 part was fear of 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 would gladly get rid of.

How did doing this journey change you?

Now I know what I'm capable of doing, and that made me more determined. 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 make this journey across Europe. Now I'm just happy that I'm far away from the bombing, from helicopters and cluster bombs. Still, it's hard because I left my family behind.

In what ways has life in Germany been different to what you expected?

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.

What do you hope to do next?

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.

Do you think it is more difficult for people with disabilities who become refugees?

As I said earlier, you never know what you are capable of. But I always think about the people who are stuck in Syria with disabilities. But I always say, nothing lasts forever. Not even war.

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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A Naturalist's Defense Of The Modern Zoo

Zoos are often associated with animal cruelty, or at the very least a general animal unhappiness. But on everything from research to education to biodiversity, there is a case to be made for the modern zoo.

Photograph of a brown monkey holding onto a wired fence

A brown monkey hangs off of mesh wire

Marina Chocobar/Pexels
Fran Sánchez Becerril


MADRID — Zoos — or at least something resembling the traditional idea of a zoo — date back to ancient Mesopotamia. It was around 3,500 BC when Babylonian kings housed wild animals such as lions and birds of prey in beautiful structures known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Ancient China also played a significant role in the history of zoos when the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) created several parks which hosted an assortment of animals.

In Europe, it wouldn't be until 1664 when Louis XIV inaugurated the royal menagerie at Versailles. All these spaces shared the mission of showcasing the wealth and power of the ruler, or simply served as decorations. Furthermore, none of them were open to the general public; only a few fortunate individuals, usually the upper classes, had access.

The first modern zoo, conceived for educational purposes in Vienna, opened in 1765. Over time, the educational mission has become more prominent, as the exhibition of exotic animals has been complemented with scientific studies, conservation and the protection of threatened species.

For decades, zoos have been places of leisure, wonder, and discovery for both the young and the old. Despite their past success, in recent years, society's view of zoos has been changing due to increased awareness of animal welfare, shifting sensibilities and the possibility of learning about wild animals through screens. So, many people wonder: What is the purpose of a zoo in the 21st century?

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