Nujeen, p.11Nujeen Mustafa
I smiled at the thought. ‘Look, Nahda, how beautiful it is!’ I cried as we were tossed up and down. I laughed every time we were hit by another wave even though we were drenched through. ‘You need a psychiatrist, laughing here,’ said someone. Actually I was praying too, but quietly.
We were so intent on our own boat that we didn’t see what happened to the other three leaving with us. But Mustafa, scrambling up the cliff to follow our journey with binoculars and report back to our parents, was horrified. As he watched, the first boat left with the waves and was quickly overturned. We were the second boat to go. The third got much of the way and overturned close to the island, leaving the people to swim. The fourth was picked up by the Turkish coastguard. Mustafa was in tears on the phone to my father because he didn’t know if it was us. In fact we were better off as there were fewer of us compared with the other boats and Uncle Ahmed’s YouTube lessons had proved useful. He went against the waves instead of with them and got us to sit more on the side where the waves were hitting the boat to keep it down.
After a while a mist came down and we could no longer see Lesbos ahead. I hoped we were going the right way. Mahmud kept looking at my wheelchair. I knew we had agreed that if it became a danger we would throw it into the sea, but surely he wouldn’t really do that.
I kept an eye out for pirates and Turkish coastguards, but the only people at sea seemed to be refugees. Hundreds of people were making the crossing every day and two other dinghies were not far behind us. I didn’t realize how close death was. Just a small tear in the fabric from my wheelchair catching and we could have capsized or a large wave could have turned the boat over at any moment.
That’s what happened to another Syrian family making the crossing the same day. We didn’t know then but crossing earlier that day in those choppy waters a little south of us from the Bodrum peninsula to Kos was a dinghy like ours. Inside were sixteen Syrians including a barber called Abdullah Kurdi, his wife Rehanna and their two little boys, five-year-old Ghalib and three-year-old Aylan. Like us they were Kurds from Kobane and were hoping to start a new life in Germany.
Though the crossing to Kos is short, just 4 miles, even shorter than the 8 miles from Behram to Lesbos, the sea further south is more exposed and after an hour bouncing on the waves, a larger one came and flipped the dinghy with no warning, tossing everyone out. Abdullah tried to cling on to his little family but one after the other they were washed away. He stayed three hours in the water desperately searching but they were lost. Eleven of the passengers drowned, five of them children.
The next day the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi lying face down dead in the surf on a Turkish beach, in his smart red shirt and long blue shorts, went round the world. When I saw it later on Facebook, I thought that could have been me. I had to turn the phone off and take a deep breath and try and think to myself, He’s an innocent boy, he’s in heaven and happy now.
When I discussed it with my sisters we all agreed: if we had heard about it before our crossing, we would have gone back to Gaziantep.
For a normal person, the ferry from western Turkey to Mitilini, the capital of Lesbos, costs 10 euros and takes ninety minutes. To make the same crossing as refugees had taken us twelve days to arrange and cost us each $1,500.
We had been at sea three and a half hours and the sun was setting and we were starting to shiver when suddenly there was the island rising like a giant black rock ahead of us. Soon we could make out people waiting on the shore. ‘Does anybody speak English?’ we heard someone shout. ‘I do!’ I called out. Everyone looked at me. That was a turning point in my life, even more than when Nasrine had said it was all right to feel sorry for Saddam being executed. It was the first time I had spoken English to a real English-speaker.
Freedom like a Normal Person
Lesbos, 2 September–9 September 2015
It felt as if we had taken a salty shower. The dinghy bumped on to the rocky shore and friendly faces and outstretched hands awaited us with towels, bottles of water and biscuits. Some of my relatives were too dazed to get out on their own and volunteers walked into the sea and helped us. They were surprised to see my wheelchair and lifted it out on to the shore. ‘You are the first refugee we have seen in a wheelchair,’ they told me.
My aunt Shereen kissed the shore and started praying. Others hugged each other or the volunteers. Nahda was crying. Some just started walking up the beach. One of my cousins remembered to take a knife to puncture the dinghy because the smuggler had told us that if it was still seaworthy the Greek coastguards might send us back. A fisherman came and took the motor.
The person who had asked if anyone spoke English was a Spanish photo-journalist. He asked me how the trip had been.
‘I enjoyed it because I don’t think I will have the chance again,’ I said.
‘Is it the first time you have seen the sea?’ he asked.
‘Yes, and it looks beautiful for me,’ I smiled.
‘What do you expect from Europe?’ was his last question.
I thought for a moment as this was important. ‘I expect freedom like a normal person,’ I replied.
We had landed in a place called Skala Sikamineas, a little fishing village on the northern shore of Lesbos where many of the boats arrived. We knew Greece was in economic trouble so we were overwhelmed by how kind people were. Among the volunteers on the beach were three old women in black who brought warm milk for Nahda’s baby and reminded me of my grandmother in Kobane. We found out later that like many on Lesbos their own mothers and fathers had come to the island on boats as refugees from İzmir when it was called Smyrna, at the time that it was a mostly Greek city. Turkish soldiers attacked it in 1922 during the Greco-Turkish war, slaughtering Greeks and setting fire to the historic centre. Thousands fled across the Aegean Sea.
The old ladies led us along the shore to a little harbour of brightly painted fishing boats with a tiny white church on a rock called Our Lady of the Mermaid, and people sitting at tables outside bars eating and drinking. The village was so beautiful it looked like a postcard. Across the way was a community centre where there was a room full of dry clothes donated by local people. We pulled off the wet clothes stiff with salt and put on new ones. Nothing quite fitted and we laughed at the kids in adult-sized shirts with arms flapping.
The volunteers explained that there would be a bus next morning to the main town and port of Mitilini where refugees had to get registered in order to travel onwards. In the meantime we would have to spend the night outdoors up on the main road where the bus would stop because there was nowhere to sleep. My English was proving very useful. It was like I was official translator for the group. For the first time in my life everyone needed me!
Then someone came in talking fast in Greek. They told us that there had been a tragedy and a dinghy after us had overturned. ‘The Moroccans!’ I gasped. I was heartbroken.
It was getting dark and before we did anything else we needed to eat as we were starving. We went to a café by a large mulberry tree and I ordered a sandwich. It looked so weird to me and also tasted odd. I had expected all Western food to be beautifully presented like I had seen on Masterchef. ‘What is this?’ I asked the waitress. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not pig,’ she replied, ‘it’s turkey.’ Anyway it tasted horrible. Western food always tastes raw to me, as our Kurdish food is much more cooked.
As always Nasrine complained about me being fussy but went to find a grocers to buy some biscuits. When she came back she said she had met a Syrian who told her that he and his family had first tried to cross through Bulgaria like Bland only to get stuck in the forest for ten days. Eventually they ran out of water and came out of the forest, so police had arrested them and sent them back to Turkey. They then decided to cross the sea to Greece, but 2 miles from shore their dinghy had capsized and they’d had to swim. We realized how lucky we had been.
The way up through the village to the road was extremely steep and it was going to be very
Sadly, even those only went so far. Sardar left us by the roadside where he said the bus would come and gave me his phone number. There was a kind of parking lot where other refugees were sleeping. Our third night in the open and this one was the worst of all because we were right at the foot of a sheer cliff. It was a terrible night. I remembered Road Runner cartoons and thought a large rock from the cliff would fall and crush me. I tried to sleep in my wheelchair but couldn’t. I was stiff and bruised from the bumping through the olive groves and then in the boat.
Eventually dawn broke and the sun came out all at once like a big pale grapefruit. Someone shouted out ‘Nujeen!’ To our delight it was the Moroccan guys who had helped us. They told us their dinghy had indeed overturned but they could swim, so they had still made it. I was so relieved.
We waited and waited for the bus to come but there was no sign of it. It got hotter and hotter and other people started walking, but Lesbos is a big island and it was more than 30 miles to the refugee camp near the port. Nasrine said she would push me, but I thought it would take days and we would melt in the 39°C heat.
Fortunately, my phone was still picking up the Turkish service so I called Sardar and told him we were stranded. He arranged for a young local woman volunteer called Kristine to come and collect me and Nasrine. She arrived about midday in a small yellow car crammed with provisions for refugees like water and biscuits. It was so full it was hard to get in. There was no way Nahda and her children could fit in so Kristine told her to wait and she would come back for her. The rest of the family had already left on foot.
It was a long twisty drive of an hour but simply beautiful. We followed a winding road along the sea, passing what seemed an endless line of refugees walking. The sea was on one side and the other side were forests of gnarled olive trees and beyond them mountains. Kristine told us that the island was famous for olives. That made me think of Uncle Bozan and I was sad. We passed an old Byzantine castle on the waterfront and started to see the outskirts of a town with stone houses and tiled roofs – Mitilini. Kristine left us at a café and I ordered a hot chocolate in English. We waited there for two hours while she went back to pick up Nahda and her children.
While we waited we watched tourists with their boiled-lobster skins, oversized sunglasses and straw hats, smelling of coconut oil and ordering colourful cocktails. I thought how deceptive this is, people are enjoying their holidays and no one knows that just down there are families sleeping on the road who have fled war and bombings.
The main refugee camp in Lesbos is called Moria. We were shocked when we saw it. It was a former military base and looked like a prison with high walls and barbed wire. And there were so many people. A camp official wrote numbers on our wrists with marker pens and took us to a hut crowded with other refugees. The place was filthy and many people seemed to be ill, coughing or suffering from stomach problems. When we saw the bathroom and toilet it was not appropriate for me – there was nothing for a disabled person to hold on to.
The rest of our party were still walking along the road towards the camp, but we couldn’t see how we could stay in such a place. So Kristine took us to another camp near the shore called Pikpa which had been set up by a charity for the sick or those more in need. It was meant to be for Syrian families but there were Afghans and Iraqis. Pikpa had wooden bungalows but those were all full, so volunteers led us to a family ridge tent 12 foot by 12 foot. There were me, my two sisters and four nieces and also Mohammed, Mustafa’s nephew, who was supposed to look after Nahda.
Next to us was another Syrian family with a young girl whose eyes were very red and infected. They told us their dinghy had capsized because the engine failed and they were eleven hours in the water before being rescued. Another family told us that so much water had come into their dinghy they had thrown everything out, even the bag with their gold jewellery and money, so they had been left with nothing.
We were given mats to sleep on but some people were sleeping on cardboard. The camp was near the airport and there was a barrage of noise from the planes coming low overhead and from all the children. It reminded me of Manbij and the bombing and I covered my ears. I hated it there. The place was too hot in the day and full of mosquitoes at night. Nahda’s children kept whining and my sisters kept moaning about the lack of hygiene – there was rubbish everywhere and other refugees referred to it as the Jungle. There were separate toilets for men and women, but not bathrooms. Only a curtain separated men from women and it smelt so disgusting no one could endure it for more than five minutes. I noticed a lot of the women were veiled and complaining that it was not possible for them to do the ablutions we do before prayers. Some of the men bathed in the sea. Nasrine and Nahda wanted to wash our clothes but there was a long queue to use the sink.
Everyone we met stared at my wheelchair and asked, ‘Oh! How did she get here?’ One of the volunteers told me she had seen me on TV. That interview I had given on arriving had made me famous! It’s funny because I always forget I am in a wheelchair. Whenever I imagine myself in a tourist attraction like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I picture myself walking. I forget I will be in a wheelchair with someone pushing me.
Bland had told us that the first thing we should do each time we got to a new country was get a local SIM card. We found people selling them, bottles of water and top-up cards at the gate, and there was a charging area in the camp which you had to queue for – everyone wanted to charge their phone. There were coloured pencils for children and some of their drawings had been pinned up. Some were of houses with stick-figure families at the door and bomber planes overhead. One of them showed a flower dripping blood.
It was while waiting there for our phones to charge that we first heard about little Aylan Kurdi. I refused to look at the photograph as I knew it would be bad for my psychology.
It was a tough week that we spent in Lesbos. The Greeks were going through their own crisis. The country was bankrupt and half their young people couldn’t find jobs. The last thing they needed was us refugees. Not surprisingly there was little to eat in the camp. They gave out spaghetti but we had nothing to cook it on. Every day my sisters bought tomatos and a kind of salami made of beef, and some bread to make sandwiches. After a week I said I am not going to eat salami again for another year. Nasrine complained that the Greeks were keeping us refugees there deliberately to make money for their economy.
But the volunteers were very friendly. And they were just overwhelmed by the numbers. Soon there would be 37,000 refugees on the island, almost half its population. Mohammed went into the town to investigate ferry times and tickets, and said he saw lots of people sleeping in parks and on the streets.
My English was proving useful and I was glad because I felt I had had to learn it in a very hard way with no books or lessons. One day a volunteer asked me to translate for a Kurdish lady whose daughter was sick. She had a kidney infection and they wanted me to explain about the medicine. Afterwards the woman couldn’t stop thanking me. ‘I am so happy, you are my angel,’ she said. All because of Days of Our Lives!
Even though we were all trying to escape from fighting, I guess so many desperate people crowded together and wanting to be somewhere else is bound to cause tension and fights broke out. To travel on from Lesbos to the mainland you needed a paper from the Greek government granting permission to stay three weeks. The Greeks had set up a fast-track system for Syrians to be processed in just two days, while other nationalities could take more than a month. This of course annoyed the others, particularly Afghans and Iraqis who were also fleeing from war. One
This slowed everything for everyone. Nahda was getting really annoyed, worried that her children would get sick in the heat and dirt, and she kept asking me to talk to people and to call Sardar and Kristine. Finally, on the seventh day, we were told that police were coming and we should gather in the central square. Eventually Greek officials came and took our names, dates of birth and where we came from. People were scared to give fingerprints because of that Dublin regulation even though the Germans had said it didn’t matter.
When it came to our turn I was the translator. I explained we were Kurds fleeing Aleppo and had no papers. It was hard to concentrate as the policeman had a cup of coffee on his table which I couldn’t stop looking at because I wanted to drink it so much.
By the end of that day we had the precious permission. It said Greek authorities wouldn’t exercise their right to arrest us and was valid for three weeks. The piece of paper felt like one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. There was no point in staying any longer. There was a ferry that night that in twelve hours would take us to Athens for 60 euros each. But we ended up staying another night as Mohammed forgot to take our permissions when he went to buy the tickets. So the rest of our relatives, who were all in Moria, ended up going on without us.
The next evening we called a taxi for eight o’clock, before sunset, but it did not come. We waited at the front of the camp. The guard had six dogs so I went mad as they were all around. Finally at midnight the taxi came and drove us to the port. We got out in front of a beautiful old building like rich people in Europe owned centuries ago and I wondered who had lived there.
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