Nujeen, p.14
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       Nujeen, p.14

           Nujeen Mustafa
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  Of course I had seen all the advertising. I ordered a Big Mac, after checking there was no pork, along with fries and a Coke. The burger came wrapped in paper and the fries in a brown bag instead of on plates. The burger was small and grey, not shining and plump as in the ads, and I had lots of information about how cheap the burger meat was and what it did to your body. So my expectations were not high, but I liked it, particularly with lots of ketchup.

  My Coke was bubbly, which I don’t really like, and I told Nasrine an interesting fact: that Icelanders consume more Coca-Cola per capita than any other nation. She wasn’t really listening as she was on Google maps trying to figure out our route. It turned out we were not far from Italy. I was excited to go there and see all the famous art and Roman ruins, but it would have been a longer way round than through Slovenia.

  Afterwards we went to a shopping mall, my first one, and I had another first too – my first time on an escalator. We spent a long time trying to work out how to use it in a wheelchair. It was awesome, though a little bit scary on the way down.

  Our eyes were on stalks seeing all the shops. Though we don’t cover our heads, we always wear clothes with long sleeves and trousers that cover us, so we were still not used to Europe where women show so much flesh. I was happy to be back in a normal life after so long with war and bombing and power-outages. For an hour or so I could pretend I was a girl who lived there rather than a refugee with no home. Nasrine, who had been getting sore eyes from all the dust and pollen, even tried on some sunglasses as if we were just normal shoppers.

  That’s when we saw a girl looking at us. We were worried, but she was very friendly. ‘You are the refugee girl in the photograph in the newspaper!’ she said.

  ‘You’re famous!’ laughed Nasrine. But I was worried that people were just interested in me because of the wheelchair. ‘Maybe that’s what attracted them,’ she said, ‘but it’s because of your personality they wanted to speak to you.’

  Sometimes sisters can be sweet as birds even if they support the wrong football team.

  Back at the station we heard that Slovenia was stopping trains coming from Croatia. We decided to use some of our precious money to get a taxi instead to the border. We were lucky as the driver’s sister lived there, and he knew exactly where to go. The scenery was beautiful. We still couldn’t believe how green Europe was. And clean everywhere. It smelled different to Syria, almost as if people perfumed the streets.

  The journey west took about an hour and a half, and the driver dropped us near the Slovenian border on an unpronounceable road called Žumberački put. It was strange to think that every country we had been through since leaving Greece had once been one country – Yugoslavia – until just over ten years before. I wondered if our country will end in pieces too.

  The taxi driver pointed out a field of flowers through which we had to cross. The sun was setting and we could see nothing ahead but forest and the smudgy purple silhouettes of the mountains. Soon we were in Slovenia. It was weird not seeing any other refugees. There was a small village near by and dogs started barking as we approached. I was mesmerized by the view and loved the feeling of the breeze in my hair and the fresh scent of pines. But Nasrine was terrified. We had nowhere to go and it was getting dark and we’d heard there were bandits robbing refugees – not that we had much. ‘Oh God, we’re going to have to sleep in the forest,’ she said.

  That’s when we heard footsteps. Some of the locals must have called the police. I think Nasrine was kind of relieved to see them, even though when we said we were from Syria they arrested us. Once again we were loaded into a police van. They took us to a police station in a nearby town called Perišče. Surprisingly in this small place they had an Iraqi translator, and they began this big interrogation asking us how we got through the border and about the whole journey from Syria through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia etc. I couldn’t see why they needed to know.

  After we had told the whole story, they said we would be fingerprinted. The last thing we wanted was to end up in Slovenia, so we refused. The policeman was insistent. I asked if we were obliged to do it. ‘You seem a nice person,’ he replied. ‘Do you want to do this the easy way or the hard way?’ I saw there was no way to avoid it.

  That’s when we found out we were very unlucky because the Slovenian government had said the first 100 people to enter Slovenia should be interrogated and sent back to Croatia. We were numbers one and two. Typical – the first time in my life I am number one and it’s a bad thing!

  By then it was very late, so we were locked in a cell with bars in the police station and told we would be sent back to Croatia the next day. The cell had two bunks and a button for calling the guard if we needed anything. I wasn’t happy to be in jail, but I was so tired that it was the first time for ages that I had a good sleep.

  Next morning we waited and waited. They’d told us we would be picked up at 9 a.m., but it got to 1 p.m. and nobody told us anything. Eventually we called the guard. He said the Croatian government had refused to take us back.

  Then we were taken outside to a yard where a lot of other refugees were being held. They told us they had come by train from Croatia and been locked inside the carriages for hours and eventually brought there. There was an officer from UNHCR and he said to me we should apply for asylum there in Slovenia. I got mad and told him, ‘You are supposed to protect refugees! We are two young girls alone in a foreign city, we are not going to stay here alone, waiting for months. What would happen to us?’

  Finally, a tour bus arrived and we were told to get on with the other refugees. As usual we were sitting at the front. Yet again we had no idea where we were going. There were other Syrians on the bus as well as Afghans, but most seemed to be Iraqis, including a group of Yazidis. Not only had they travelled the journey we had made, but they had first had to cross Syria. We felt bad for them because they had had to cross through two war zones, and at the end of their journey it was only Syrians who the Germans had said they would accept.

  The bus drove through kind of Alpine scenery with forested mountains, waterfalls, lakes and sheer cliffs dotted with trees. The road signs were not much help in revealing where we were going as the words were incomprehensible and looked as if they were missing vowels, but some people were following on Google maps and said we were heading west towards the capital Ljubljana.

  Dusk was falling as we drew up at the Postojna Centre for Foreigners, a two-storey building with bars on the windows that looked very scary and turned out to be a military camp. Policemen boarded the bus and announced that they would take our phones, money and valuables. Everyone got very worried. ‘They are going to lock us in here, otherwise why would they take the phones?’ said one man.

  ‘We are not getting off the bus!’ someone shouted.

  I guess the Iraqis were Shias because they started saying prayers to Ali – I’d never heard Shias praying before. We Sunnis say, ‘There is no God but Allah, whose prophet is Muhammad (PBUH),’ but the Shias added an extra phrase at the end: ‘and Ali is the friend of God’. I tried not to listen as we are not polytheist.

  Hearing them reminded me of watching the Royal Wedding on TV in Aleppo. Nasrine was cleaning the room at the time, and when Prince William and Kate started saying the marriage vows and exchanged rings they said, ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’. I didn’t understand as I didn’t know about Christianity at the time, but Nasrine said, ‘Ignorant people!’

  The Shias praying and moaning scared us. Nasrine started crying. Then someone said he knew a person who had been locked up in the camp for two months, at which everyone freaked out. People started asking what guarantee there was that we could leave once inside.

  Finally, the policemen ran out of patience and ordered us out of the bus, then herded us inside the detention centre. Although they let us keep our phones, there was no signal or wifi, so we couldn’t see where we were. I started crying because I thought I would never see sunlight agai

  But then I thought that these are the kind of obstacles I will face in a new country, and I started calming myself down. I thought of Nelson Mandela and the twenty-seven years he had spent in jail, never losing his spirit, and Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdish PKK, who has been in jail in Turkey since 1999. But they were not ideal for cheering you up, so then I tried to focus on listing Romanov rulers which usually works.

  Inside the centre we were divided into two groups – single men and families. Nasrine and I were taken to a room with an Afghan family. The woman was veiled and there was a man and a little boy, and we couldn’t understand a word they said. We were a bit scared of Afghans after the fight they had caused in Lesbos and also because they always refused to queue at the border points. Sometimes they pretended to be Syrians to try and get through borders as it was Syrians the Germans had said they would accept, but we couldn’t believe anyone would be convinced as their language and appearance was completely different.

  Then we heard someone speaking Arabic outside, a Syrian man complaining to a guard that his wife shouldn’t be in the same room as a foreign man. After that the guard came in and took away the Afghans and brought the Syrians in instead.

  They were from Idlib in northern Syria, which after a big battle was no longer under Assad’s control and had been taken over by the al-Nusra Front. The group comprised a married man, his wife and baby, her brother and a single mother who said she had come alone because her husband had been killed in a bombing raid. She showed us photographs on her phone of her children who she had left in a camp in Lebanon. As she couldn’t take them all to Germany her plan was to make her way there alone, request asylum, then get them out through family reunification. A lot of people seemed to be doing that, but we knew from Bland it wasn’t so easy.

  The Idlib family were nice, but I was too exhausted to listen to any more sad stories. It was a rough night. There were six bunk beds, and my sister and I took one pair, me in the lower and Nasrine above. They were uncomfortable and I was scared of rolling out, and a mosquito kept bothering me. I dreamt of Ayee, that I was sleeping next to her, but when I tried to roll close to her I woke and saw she wasn’t there, which upset me. Then we were woken at 4 a.m. as the other family had set the alarm on their phone to pray.

  Nasrine said when she heard the beeping in her sleep she started dreaming that she was on a pilgrimage like our Haj in Mecca, only in Slovenia and with everyone dressed in white. She usually prays every day and I guess she was feeling guilty that she wasn’t praying on the journey.

  After breakfast of bread and cheese we went outside. There was a yard where some of the refugees were playing football, and it had netting all around and over the top, so it felt as if even the sky was locked out. That was the scariest part for me. I thought, I’m a prisoner here.

  Inside was a big hall with a TV which was showing Al Jazeera. The main news was the refugee crisis – a ‘tidal wave of humanity’ they called us – and we watched to see what was happening on the borders. We saw that Hungary was still closed and more and more people were streaming into Croatia – 11,000 so far – and it had closed almost all road crossings and was saying it couldn’t accept any more people. Slovenia had stopped all rail traffic on the main line from Croatia and said it was going to introduce border controls. Even Germany was so overwhelmed it had suspended trains from Austria. There was footage of people stampeding for a bus to Croatia and others swarming across fields. It was like we were a lost tribe being pushed from border to border.

  The report then switched to Brussels, where EU leaders in suits kept having meetings to discuss the ‘migrant crisis’. They all agreed it was very serious and something needed to be done, but none of them seemed to want us and everyone seemed very cross with Germany. I couldn’t help thinking that there might be a lot of us but even if we were a million we were not even 0.2 per cent of the 500 million living in the EU, and in our tradition we would never turn away those in need.

  ‘The European Union is not in a good situation,’ said a serious man with glasses called Jean-Claude Juncker, whose head stuck out like my old tortoise, and who was described as President of the European Commission (I wasn’t sure what that was). ‘There is a lack of Europe in this Union and a lack of union in this Union.’ I wondered why he didn’t do something if he was in charge. Instead it was like the rest of the world just wished we would go away.

  All anybody talked about was the migration crisis. A lot of the people at the centre were from Aleppo like us but had left more recently and had terrible stories to tell of the bombing and the hunger.

  Nasrine spoke to the Yazidis – their dialect is similar to the Kurmanji we speak. There was one girl whose two brothers had been killed by Daesh as they fled the mountains and her sister kidnapped. She and others who escaped had scratched their faces to make themselves ugly to Daesh so they wouldn’t be taken. Her parents had sold everything they had left including her mother’s gold to enable her to leave. ‘There is nothing good for us in Iraq,’ she said. She had tattooed her name on her wrist in case she was killed and no one knew who she was.

  We also met a Palestinian family with six children, including two pairs of twins, who told us they were two-times refugees – their family had fled to Syria in 1948 after the British Mandate in Palestine ended and Jewish militias started razing villages to seize land for the new state of Israel. We used to have about half a million Palestinians in Syria because of course it was once a good place to live.

  This family had grown up in a big camp just south of Damascus called Yarmouk which was like a city with schools, hospitals and even its own newspapers. They had tried to stay out of the revolution, but in 2012 the regime decided the area was becoming a haven for rebel fighters so it was bombed by Assad’s jets. Daily gun battles erupted between both sides and they fled to a camp in Lebanon. Life there, they said, was miserable – Palestinians don’t get the same treatment as Syrians and they had to pay for residency permits and rent in the camp. Initially they thought Assad would soon be ousted and they could go back to Yarmouk. But that didn’t happen. As time went on and more refugees came, sympathy for them in Lebanon wore thin. Now there are 1.2 million Syrians there – equivalent to almost a quarter of their population – and it’s only a small strip of land.

  The family’s money was running low, as were food rations in the camp. When they heard Mrs Merkel’s words and saw that people were getting to Germany, they decided to try themselves.

  They paid smugglers to get them to Turkey and from there crossed on a boat to Greece, to the island of Kos. It sounded as though conditions there were worse than Lesbos as the mayor hated refugees and locked them in a football stadium with no water. Finally, they got the official papers and booked a ferry to Athens. Like ours it was leaving in the early hours and they all fell asleep. When they woke up the next morning they saw the ferry hadn’t moved. People were so angry there were riots. Eventually the ferry left. After eight hours it stopped and they got off. Only then did they realize they were now in Mitilini in Lesbos, not Athens.

  As they told the story they laughed a lot. Refugees are resilient people.

  I was surprised how calm Nasrine was. Maybe it was because the Idlib family had promised they would accompany us to Germany so we wouldn’t be alone.

  For me it was the hardest day of the trip. We’d lost everything – our country, our home, my aunt and uncle – and been separated from our family, and now we were prisoners. It’s actually illegal to lock up refugees, but what could we do? I was scared we would be kept there for three or four months.

  There, surrounded by police and not able to get out, I realized how precious freedom is and how valuable it is to be free. That was the day I understood why we had started this whole revolution, even though Assad had responded by leading the country to its destruction. No longer could I pretend I was on some sort of holiday trip across Europe – now I knew I was truly a refugee.

  The only good thing about the deten
tion centre was the food, in particular a red rosehip drink called Cockta that tasted of herbs and petals and reminded me of the sarep I loved when I was a child.

  But then we heard that the Iraqis had got out by going on a hunger strike, and we decided to do the same. The threat worked and finally the next day – after two nights – the Slovenians let us go and put us on a bus to an open camp in a place called Logatec.

  Only as we were leaving Postojna did I realize how beautiful it was, surrounded by nature, hills, where everything was green. Later I looked the place up and read that baby dragons had been born in a cave in those mountains just above where we were. I didn’t even know there were actually dragons. I felt sorry that all we were seeing of countries were police and refugees.


  The Sound of Music

  Slovenia–Austria, 20–21 September 2015

  I was a bit scared entering Austria for two reasons. One, as I told Nasrine, it was where Hitler was born, the man who caused Europe’s last really big refugee crisis. Secondly, it was where seventy-one refugees had died the previous month, suffocated inside a truck meant for transporting frozen chickens. The truck had been abandoned at the side of a motorway from Budapest to Vienna and was spotted by Austrian police because it had liquid seeping out the back. When they opened it, the smell of death was overpowering for it was piled up with rotting corpses, including eight women, three children and a baby of just eighteen months, and there were dents in the sides of the truck where the desperate people must have been banging as they ran out of oxygen.

  On our journey, apart from the leg between Turkey and Greece, we had tried to avoid smugglers, though we had been overcharged by many taxis. But generally we had been lucky, maybe because of disability benefits, and for the most part people along the way had tried to help us. We knew many refugees had walked hundreds of miles. Only in Turkey and Greece had we spent nights sleeping outside. Sometimes we joked that we were five-star refugees.

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