The Girl from Aleppo, p.1Nujeen Mustafa
Map by Martin Brown
I see Earth! It is so beautiful.
Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, 1961
Prologue: The Crossing
PART ONE: To Lose a Country 1. Foreigners in Our Own Land
2. The Walls of Aleppo
3. The Girl on TV
4. Days of Rage
5. A City Divided
6. A War of Our Own
7. Gone with the Wind
8. Forgive Me, Syria
PART TWO: The Journey 9. Widen Your World
10. In Search of a People Smuggler
11. The Route of Death
12. Freedom like a Normal Person
13. Through the Beautiful Gate
14. Hungary, Open the Door!
15. The Hardest Day
16. The Sound of Music
17. Thank You, Mama Merkel
PART THREE: A Normal Life 18. Foreigners in a Foreign Land
19. A Schoolgirl at Last
20. A Scary New Year
21. A Place Called Home
Postscript: The Only Candle
Appendix: My Journey
About the Author
About the Publisher
Behram, Turkey, 2 September 2015
From the beach we could see the island of Lesbos – and Europe. The sea stretched either side as far as you could see and it was not rough, it was quiet, flecked only by the smallest of white caps that looked as if they were dancing on the waves. The island did not look too far off, rising from the sea like a rocky loaf. But the grey dinghies were small and low in the water, weighed down with as many lives as the smugglers could pack in.
It was the first time I had seen the sea. The first time for everything – travelling on a plane, in a train, leaving my parents, staying in a hotel and now going in a boat! Back in Aleppo I had barely ever left our fifth-floor apartment.
We had heard from those who had gone before that on a fine summer day like this with a working motor a dinghy takes just over an hour to cross the strait. It was one of the shortest routes from Turkey to Greece – just 8 miles. The problem was that the motors were often old and cheap and strained for power with loads of fifty or sixty people, so the trips took three or four hours. On a rainy night when waves reached as high as 10 feet and tossed the boats like toys, sometimes they never made it at all and journeys of hope ended in a watery grave.
The beach was not sandy as I had imagined it would be but pebbly – impossible for my wheelchair. We could see we were in the right place from a ripped cardboard box printed with the words ‘Inflatable Rubber Dinghy; Made in China (Max Capacity 15 Pax)’, as well as a trail of discarded belongings scattered along the shore like a kind of refugee flotsam and jetsam. There were toothbrushes, nappies and biscuit wrappers, abandoned backpacks and a slew of clothes and shoes. Jeans and T-shirts tossed out because there was no room in the boat and smugglers make you travel as light as possible. A pair of grey high-heeled mules with fluffy black pom-poms, which seemed a crazy thing to have brought on this journey. A child’s tiny pink sandal decorated with a plastic rose. A boy’s light-up trainers. And a large grey floppy bear with a missing eye that must have been hard for someone to leave behind. All the stuff had turned this beautiful place into a rubbish dump, which made me sad.
We had been in the olive groves all night after being dropped off on the cliff road by the smuggler’s mini-bus. From there we had to walk down the hill to the shore which was about a mile. That may not sound much but it feels a very long way in a wheelchair over a rough track with only your sister to push and a fierce Turkish sun beating down and driving sweat into your eyes. There was a road zigzagging down the hill which would have been much easier, but we couldn’t walk along that as we might be spotted and arrested by the Turkish gendarmerie who could put us in a detention centre or even send us back.
I was with two of my four elder sisters – Nahda, though she had her baby and three little girls to handle, and my closest sister Nasrine who always looks after me and is as beautiful as her name, which means a white rose that grows on the hills of Kurdistan. Also with us were some cousins whose parents – my aunt and uncle – had been shot dead by Daesh snipers in June when they went to a funeral in Kobane, a day I don’t want to think about.
The way was bumpy. Annoyingly, Nasrine pulled the wheelchair so I was facing backwards and only got occasional glimpses of the sea, but when I did it was sparkling blue. Blue is my favourite colour because it’s the colour of God’s planet. Everyone got very hot and bothered. The chair was too big for me and I gripped the sides so hard that my arms hurt and my bottom got bruised from all the bumping, but I didn’t say anything.
As with everywhere we had passed through I told my sisters some local information I had gathered before we left. I was excited that on top of the hill above us was the ancient town of Assos which had a ruined temple to the goddess Athena and, even better, was where Aristotle once lived. He’d started a school of philosophy overlooking the sea so he could watch the tides and challenge the theory of his former master Plato that tides were turbulence caused by rivers. Then the Persians attacked and made the philosophers flee and Aristotle ended up in Macedonia as tutor to a young Alexander the Great. St Paul the apostle also passed through on his own journey to Lesbos from Syria. As always my sisters didn’t seem very interested.
I gave up trying to inform them and watched the seagulls having fun gliding on thermals and making noisy loops high in the blue, blue sky, never once stalling. How I wished I could fly. Even astronauts don’t have that freedom.
Nasrine kept checking the Samsung smartphone our brother Mustafa had bought us for the journey to make sure we were following the Google map coordinates given to us by the smuggler. Yet, when we finally got to the shore, it turned out we were not in the right place. Every smuggler has their own ‘point’ – we had coloured strips of fabric tied round our wrists to identify us – and we were at the wrong one.
Where we needed to be wasn’t far along the beach but when we got to the end there was a sheer cliff blocking us off. The only way round was to swim, which we obviously couldn’t do. So we’d ended up having to walk up and down another rugged hill to reach the right point on the shore. Those slopes were like hell. If you slipped and fell into the sea you’d definitely be dead. It was so rocky that I couldn’t be pushed or pulled but had to be carried. My cousins teased me, ‘You are the Queen, Queen Nujeen!’
By the time we got to the right beach the sun was setting, an explosion of pink and purple as if one of my little nieces was squiggling coloured crayons across the sky. From the hills above I heard the gentle tinkle of goat-bells.
We spent the night in the olive grove. Once the sun had gone the temperature dropped suddenly and the ground was hard and rocky even though Nasrine spread all the clothes we had around me. But I was terribly exhausted, having never spent so much time outside in my life, and I slept most of the night. We couldn’t make a fire because it might attract police. Some people used the cardboard dinghy cartons to try and cover themselves. It felt like one of those movies where a group go camping and something terrible happens.
Breakfast was sugar cubes and Nutella which might sound exciting but kind of sucks when it’s all you have. The smugglers had promised we would leave early in the morning and by dawn we were all ready on the beach in our life jackets. Our phones were tied inside part
There were several other groups waiting. We had paid $1,500 each instead of the usual $1,000 to have a dinghy just for our family, but it seemed others would be in our boat. We would be thirty-eight in total – twenty-seven adults and eleven children. Now we were here there was nothing we could do – we couldn’t go back and people said the smugglers used knives and cattle prods on those who changed their minds.
The sky was cloudless, and close by I could see that 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 near the island. I knew the sea only from National Geographic documentaries and now it was as if I was part of one. I felt really wired and couldn’t understand why everyone was nervous. For me it was like the biggest adventure!
Other kids were running and collecting pebbles of different colours. A small Afghan boy gave me one the shape of a dove, flat and grey with a white marble vein running through it. It was cool to the touch and worn smooth by the sea. It’s not always easy for me to hold things in my awkward fingers but I wasn’t letting go of that.
There were people from Syria like us as well as from Iraq, Morocco and Afghanistan speaking in a language we didn’t understand. Some people swapped stories but most didn’t say much. They didn’t need to. To be leaving all you knew and had built up in your own country to make this dangerous and uncertain journey, it must be bad.
As morning broke we watched the first boats go out. Two set off more or less straight but two were going in all directions. The boats didn’t have pilots – what happened was the smugglers let one of the refugees travel for half price or for free if he drove the boat even though none of them had any experience. ‘It’s just like riding a motorbike,’ they claimed. My uncle Ahmed was going to be driving our boat. I guessed he’d never driven one as we had never been to the sea and his old job was running a mobile-phone shop, but he assured us he knew how.
We’d heard that some refugees gun the motor to get halfway across to Greek waters as fast as possible and they burn out the motor. Sometimes the engines don’t have enough fuel. If that happens the Turkish coastguard catch you and bring you back. In Café Sinbad in İzmir we’d met a family from Aleppo who had tried to cross six times. We didn’t have money to keep trying.
Around 9 a.m. Uncle Ahmed called the smuggler, but he said we must wait for the coastguard to go. ‘We have chosen the wrong smuggler,’ said Nasrine. I worried we had been cheated again. We hadn’t expected to be here so long and were soon hungry and thirsty which was ironic as there was so much water in front of us. My cousins went to try and find water for me and the children but there was nothing near by.
The day got hotter. Though the smuggler had arrived with dinghies for us and the other groups, he said we couldn’t go until the coastguard changed shift. The Moroccan men were half naked and started singing. As the afternoon came, the waves started to get higher, making a slapping sound on the shore. None of us wanted to go at night as we’d heard stories of kind of pirates on jet-skis who board boats in the dark to steal motors and the valuables of refugees.
Finally, around 5 p.m., they said the coastguards were changing guard so we could take advantage and go. I looked again at the sea. A mist was coming down and the cry of the seagulls no longer seemed so joyful. A dark shadow lay over the rocky island. Some call that crossing rihlat al-moot or the route of death. It would either deliver us to Europe or swallow us up. For the first time I felt scared.
Back home I often watched a series called Brain Games on National Geographic which showed how feelings of fear and panic are controlled by the brain, so I began practising breathing deeply and telling myself over and over that I was strong.
To Lose a Country
Before they are numbers, these people are first and foremost human beings.
Pope Francis, Lesbos, 16 April 2016
Foreigners in Our Own Land
I don’t collect stamps or coins or football cards – I collect facts. Most of all I like facts about physics and space, particularly string theory. Also about history and dynasties like the Romanovs. And controversial people like Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover.
My brother Mustafa says I only need to hear something once to remember it exactly. I can list you all the Romanovs from the first one Tsar Mikhail to Nicholas II who was murdered by the Bolsheviks along with all his family, even his youngest daughter Anastasia. I can tell you exactly what date Queen Elizabeth II became queen of England – both the day her father died and her coronation – and the dates of both her birthdays, actual and official. I’d like to meet her one day and ask her ‘What’s it like having Queen Victoria as your great-great-grandmother?’ and ‘Isn’t it odd everyone singing a song about saving you?’
I can also tell you that the only animal not to make a sound is a giraffe because it has no vocal cords. This used to be one of my favourite facts, but then people started calling our dictator Bashar al-Assad the Giraffe because he has a long neck.
Now here is a fact I don’t think anyone should like. Did you know that one in every 113 people in the world today are refugees or displaced from their homes? Lots of them are escaping wars like the one that has ravaged our country Syria, or those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Others are running from terrorist groups in Pakistan and Somalia or from persecution by mullah regimes in Iran and Egypt. Then there are ones fleeing dictatorship in Gambia, forced conscription in Eritrea, and hunger and poverty in countries in Africa I never saw on a map. On TV I keep hearing reporters say that the movement of people from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia into Europe is the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. In 2015 more than 1.2 million came to Europe. I was one of them.
I hate the word refugee more than any word in the English language. In German it is Flüchtling, which is just as harsh. What it really means is a second-class citizen with a number scrawled on your hand or printed on a wristband, who everyone wishes would somehow go away. The year 2015 was when I became a fact, a statistic, a number. Much as I like facts, we are not numbers, we are human beings and we all have stories. This is mine.
My name is Nujeen which means new life, and I guess you can say I was unexpected. My mum and dad already had four boys and four girls, and by the time I came along on New Year’s Day 1999, twenty-six years after my eldest brother Shiar, some were already married off and the youngest one Nasrine was nine, so everyone thought the family was complete. My mum almost died giving birth to me and was so weak afterwards it was my eldest sister Jamila who really looked after me, and I always thought of her as my second mother. To start with, the family was happy to have a baby in the house but then I didn’t stop crying and crying. The only thing that would stop me was putting a tape recorder next to me playing Zorba the Greek, but that drove my siblings almost as mad as my crying.
We lived in a dusty neglected desert sort of town called Manbij in northern Syria, not far from the border with Turkey and about 20 miles west of the Euphrates river and the Tishrin dam which gave us electricity. My earliest memory is the long swish of my mother’s dress – a light-coloured kaftan which fell to her ankles. She had long hair too, and we called her Ayee and my father Yaba and these are not Arabic words. The first fact to know about me is I’m a Kurd.
We were one of five Kurdish families on a street in a town that was mostly Arab; they were Bedouin but they looked down on us and called our area the Hill of the Foreigners. We had to speak their language at school and in the shops and could speak our Kurdish language Kurmanji only when we were at home. This was very hard for my parents, who didn’t speak Arabic and were anyway illiterate. Also for my eldest brother Shiar, who other children made fun of at school because he couldn’t speak Arabic.
Manbij is a folkish kind of place and strict abo
Our family had moved from our lands in a Kurdish village south of the city of Kobane because of a vendetta with a neighbouring village. We Kurds are tribal people and my family are from the big Kori Beg tribe, descended from a famous Kurdish resistance leader Kori Beg, which seems to mean almost every Kurd is a cousin. The next village were also Kori Beg but a different clan. The problem with them happened long before I was born, but we all knew the story. Both villages had sheep and one day some shepherd boys from the other village brought their flock to graze on our grass, so there was a fight with our shepherd boys. Shortly after that some of our relatives were going to the other village for a funeral and on the way were fired upon by two men from the other village. When our clan fired back one of their men was killed. They vowed revenge, so we all had to flee. That’s how we ended up in Manbij.
People don’t know much about Kurds – sometimes it seems to me we are completely unknown in the rest of the world. We are a proud people with our own language, food and culture and a long history going back 2,000 years when we were first recorded as Kurti. We are maybe 30 million people, but we have never had our own country. In fact we are the world’s biggest stateless tribe. We hoped we would get our own homeland when the British and French divided up the defeated Ottoman Empire after the First World War, just as the Arabs thought they would get their own independence as promised after the Arab Revolt. The Allied powers even signed an agreement called the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 which recognized an autonomous Kurdistan.
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