Across Land and Sea, a Teenage Refugee and Her Flight from Syria

Book review: Nujeen, by Nujeen Mustafa with Christina Lamb

I fell in love with Nujeen Mustafa, like many did, when Last Week Tonight host John Oliver used BBC interview clips of the teenage Syrian refugee at a way station on the Serbian-Hungarian border as she traveled to Germany with her sister. She was so sweet and optimistic despite her unimaginably difficult journey and experiences in the war-torn homeland she’d fled. And she was so unabashedly in love with Days of Our Lives, it was impossible not to be charmed by her. And at the same time, heartbroken for her – separated from her parents, on the way to an unknown destination through difficult terrain in European countries that were often less than welcoming to the flood of refugees fleeing ISIS and war in the Middle East. It’s a situation incomprehensible for us in the West, and in the last years it’s been the reality for thousands.

Nujeen, a Kurd originally from Manbij in northern Syria, tells her story with eloquence and a wisdom that exceeds her years, plus a rare talent that many adults don’t even have, of directly acknowledging her flaws and how she’s trying to learn and grow. It’s clear she’s had to grow up faster and differently than many her age, not only because of her life in the troubled Middle East but managing her physical struggles. Born with cerebral palsy, she’s confined to a wheelchair and tells in her memoir of the distance that disability created between her and other kids, even in her own family. At the same time, it helped her illuminate a life of the mind instead. Unable to easily leave her family’s fifth floor apartment in Aleppo, she became a TV fanatic but a smart one, consuming documentaries on all kinds of topics but with a special preference for science, space and nature, and of course honing her English with the melodrama of Days.

We learn a lot of what makes her tick – she likes entrepreneurs – Google’s Sergey Brin, Apple’s Steve Jobs; and she doesn’t like being deceived, whether that’s by manipulated marketing or government propaganda. It’s in passages like these that so much of her exuberant, optimistic personality shines through, and like John Oliver said, she would enrich any country lucky enough to have her. Her expression is certainly helped and shaped by co-author Christina Lamb, the British journalist and foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times. She’s written extensively about current events in the Middle East and also collaborated with Malala Yousafzi on 2013’s I Am Malala. 

Now living with two of her sisters in a suburb of Cologne and still awaiting her official asylum permission, Nujeen writes about new difficulties she faces, like the prejudice against refugees and the challenge of going to school after a lifetime of self-education with TV documentaries at home. But she’s also had a lot of triumphs and been the recipient of small kindnesses shown to her and her sister, like a bag of chocolate from a German neighbor, or an iPad from fellow Days fans. She’s far more adept than some people twice her age at taking the good with the bad, and making the best of situations that would’ve broken others with her own brand of light, breezy philosophizing.

When refugees began arriving on European shores, they were faceless. Nujeen talks about this, pointing out the insensitivity of much of the language used to refer to them. She forces us to confront this, and to see them individually, the same as everyone else. It’s not such a big request.

Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair
by Nujeen Mustafa with Christina Lamb

published October 11, 2016 by Harper Wave

I received an advance ebook copy for review courtesy of the publisher.

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