Saturday 20 July 2019

Warm, funny and brave, Nujeen reached out and touched my heart

David and Goliath story has opened my eyes to the refugee crisis, and I want to help

Optimism: Nujeen Mustafa on the road from Syria to Germany in August 2015 Photo: AFP PHOTO / STR
Optimism: Nujeen Mustafa on the road from Syria to Germany in August 2015 Photo: AFP PHOTO / STR

Victoria Mary Clarke

I am having a holiday on the island of La Gomera, near Tenerife. On the beach in front of our hotel there is a large orange deflated dinghy lying abandoned. Nobody goes near it, nobody touches it.

The day we arrived, there was a dead body on the beach, covered in a white towel.

My mother saw it and said that at first, you wouldn't have known it was a dead body, you might have thought it was someone sleeping. But it didn't move and after a while a policeman came and then an ambulance.

Nujeen Mustafa
Nujeen Mustafa

What was truly sinister, she said, was that there was no crowd of concerned citizens - just that one policeman. If it had been a tourist or a local, she said, there would have been a major fuss, a large crowd, a great deal of interest.

I arrived at the beach just after the body had gone. Weirdly, I had just got halfway through reading a book called Nujeen - the true story of a teenage Syrian girl, Nujeen Mustafa, who has cerebral palsy and who made the journey in her wheelchair across the sea from Turkey to Greece in a cheap inflatable dinghy with 37 other people.

The boat was driven by her uncle Ahmed who had never driven a boat before, but taught himself to do it by watching YouTube videos.

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

I have a confession to make. I have been aware of the Syrian refugee crisis, but I have not been actually concerned by it. It may seem unbelievably selfish, but if truth be told, I have been more interested in losing a little bit of weight than in the refugees and their plight. But now that I "know" Nujeen, I am not just interested - I want to do something to help. Because if it is possible to love someone that you have never met, I love Nujeen.

For anyone who has already read her book, I probably don't have to explain myself. But if you haven't, the reasons are many and varied.

Her story is a David and Goliath kind of legend. A heroine's journey which will undoubtedly be made into a movie which will win someone an Oscar.

A small and physically challenged human being from a spectacularly disadvantaged background - a Kurdish girl with no country to call her own, who has spent all her childhood trapped in a fifth-floor apartment, unable to go to school because they didn't have a lift and who taught herself English by watching daytime TV.

The fact that this child has been terrorised, bullied, bombed and chased out of her home is not why I have fallen for her. There is more. She invites us to step right inside her, right inside her astonishing mind.

"I don't collect stamps or coins or football cards," she tells us. "I collect facts. Most of all I like facts about physics and space, particularly string theory. Also about history and dynasties and controversial people like Howard Hughes and J Edgar Hoover."

But Nujeen is not a nerd. Far from it. Her interests and her fascinations encompass every aspect of the world that we live in - from wondering if the Queen of England thinks that it's weird that everyone wants to save her, to her obsession with the American TV soap Days of Our Lives (which she watched during the bombing raids to take her mind off the terror).

When we like people, it is often because they have qualities that we admire - like bravery and resourcefulness. The journey across the sea from Turkey took three-and-a-half hours of bobbing around on a perilous ocean while three other boatloads of people perished. To stay strong Nujeen (who cannot swim) did breathing exercises that she taught herself from National Geographic magazine.

The people we like have qualities that lift our spirits and inspire us.

When Nujeen sees the ocean for the first time it is because she is being forced to flee a monstrous regime and to leave her parents and her possessions and everything she has ever known - but what she thinks about is the colour of the water.

"The sea wasn't just one colour, the uniform blue of pictures and my imaginings, but bright turquoise next to the shore, then a deeper blue darkening to grey, then indigo."

People who we like a lot tend not to be perfect but flawed, and they allow us to see all of their humanity. Nujeen confesses that she hates it when her siblings get married, because she hates having a lot of people around - it interrupts her television soaps. And she has to smile all the time as if she is enjoying it - a not uncommon problem.

As human beings, we tend to care most about those people who we feel closest to. They don't have to be people who we have ever met. Many of us feel close to the people on our favourite soaps, or to celebrities who we don't know in person.

Sometimes we feel closer to these people than to our own families. I think that this is because somehow we are allowed in to their lives and their struggles so much so that they touch our hearts. Nujeen has touched my heart, and when I look at the deflated dinghy on the beach outside my hotel, I think of her - and I wonder if that person who died was anything like her.

I think what a terrible pity it would be, if it had been her.

Not because she is a refugee - but because she is a warm, funny, brave, fascinating person and I believe that she has the power to influence many people like me who might otherwise not have stopped to think that refugees are people that we could be close to, as close as we are to the people that we are related to.

And when a girl like this shares her story, I think it is just possible that she could influence other girls her age to be a little less concerned about the troubles of the Kardashians and a little more interested in girls who are smart and funny and resourceful and brave and full of hope - in spite of everything that life has not given them.

Sunday Independent

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