Nujeen, p.16
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       Nujeen, p.16

           Nujeen Mustafa
 
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Then we saw another McDonald’s and I had my first fast-food meal in my new country. As we ate my eyelids started to droop. Suddenly I felt terribly exhausted. I had done my best and come to the right place, and now I just wanted to be done with travelling. The plan was to take a train to Cologne where our eldest brother Shiar lived, then go and apply for asylum the next morning. There was a fast train at 9 p.m. which we had just enough money left for. At the station we were amazed by the lifts and everything designed to make life easier for disabled people. As Nasrine says, everything is different in Germany.

  In our carriage were two Afghan men who started praying, their heads bobbing up and down, and chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’. We were a bit scared and could see Germans on the train looking alarmed. That was the first time I thought about what Germans might think of us refugees coming to live in their country in such numbers.

  Not everyone in Bavaria had been happy to see the state become the gateway for tens of thousands of refugees entering Europe’s top economy. The state premier Horst Seehofer was warning of ‘an emergency situation we soon won’t be able to control’. His party’s vice president, Hans-Peter Friedrich, predicted ‘catastrophic consequences’ and speculated that jihadists from Daesh could be hiding among us.

  Fortunately, Mrs Merkel is a feisty lady. ‘If we have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in an emergency, that’s not my country,’ she said.

  Thank you, Mama Merkel.

  The train journey was about four hours and we ended up alongside the Rhine just next to Cologne Cathedral, which was tall, dark and brooding and seemed to fill the whole skyline. I’d never seen such a massive church. Once it was the tallest building in the world. How did that not get destroyed in the war?

  And then we were pulling into the platform and there was Bland waiting for us with his floppy hair and soppy grin. He had travelled from Dortmund to meet us. I couldn’t believe we were back together. I was so happy to see him – he has been part of every event in my life.

  When we got to Shiar’s house Nahda was also there with her kids – she had waited for us to arrive so that we could apply for asylum together. It felt so good and homey for us all to be back together. I thought that the start of our new life had begun. I didn’t know what it would be and desperately needed familiar things and people around me.

  Next morning, we three sisters, two brothers and my four nieces all took a train to Dortmund. The train went through Düsseldorf. I’d never seen so many tall glass buildings, glittering in the rain. I didn’t look for long, though. I was so happy to be back with Bland I couldn’t stop looking at him.

  He showed us three sisters and Nahda’s children to the office of what the Germans call BAMF, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, which was crowded with other refugees.

  ‘We are Syrians,’ we told the receptionist. We were sent to have our photographs taken, then we waited for our turn to go to a counter and fill out an application form for asylum. Among the questions was a list of diseases or conditions to tick if you suffered them. Cerebral palsy was not on the list so Shiar suggested I write on the end, ‘Ich kann nicht laufen’ – German for I cannot run.

  The assistant told us that because of the backlog it would be about three months before our asylum interview. Bland had put his application in on 15 July in Bremen and was still in a camp in Dortmund waiting for his. In the meantime we would be sent to a camp while they tried to arrange more permanent accommodation. They explained that normally asylum seekers are sent on to a camp the same day, but in our case as I was a minor and our parents were not with us we would have to wait in the registration centre overnight.

  They put us in a bare room with just bunk beds and lots of graffiti on the walls. Shiar and Bland were not allowed to stay and were sent away, which I hadn’t expected. It felt like no sooner had we been reunited than we were parted.

  The following day I had an interview with the person responsible for minors who asked if I wanted to stay with my brother and sisters or become a ward of the German authorities and go to what they called a minors’ camp. Stupid question! Though later I found out that minors’ camps had much better conditions and I teased Nasrine that I should have gone to one and enjoyed comfy beds, chocolate ice-creams and TV.

  After my interview we were told we had to wait till 2 p.m. to find out where we were going. Germany distributes refugees across the country in proportion to the population and tax revenue of its sixteen provinces, using a system called the Königsteiner Schlüssel. Those provinces then distribute them among their cities and towns, which get funding from federal, state and local government to provide housing and other services. The problem was that there were so many of us that local authorities were struggling to cope. Municipalities were being given less than forty-eight hours’ notice to find accommodation for hundreds of refugees. They were using sports centres, stadiums, school gyms, day-care centres, office space, even the old Nazi-built airport in Berlin, and erecting tennis bubbles in parks or on sports fields. In Cologne they were even buying luxury hotels.

  The province we were in was North Rhine-Westphalia, which was getting more than 20 per cent of all refugees. It was said to be an easier place to be a refugee, and the people there were used to foreigners because in the 1960s and 1970s many Kurds from Turkey had settled in the province as there was lots of industry which needed workers. So there was less racism. That’s why Shiar had settled there and also our uncle. And it has a woman premier.

  Finally, our names were announced and they said we would be going to a camp in Essen on a bus at 4.15 p.m.

  The bus left at 4.30 p.m. – late by German standards. Uncle Ahmed and Aunt Shereen, with whom we had taken the boat to Lesbos, were in a camp in Essen, so we were excited we would be in the same place. We started following our journey on the Google map and could see we were getting closer and closer to their camp, but then our bus turned off.

  The camp we were taken to was a former hospital, and they gave us a room on the ground floor for me, Nahda, Nasrine and Nahda’s daughters. Medical staff came and checked our hair for lice, gave vaccines to the children and took blood. In my case when they put in the syringe, no blood would come. The nurse said it was because I was dehydrated as I had hardly been eating or drinking along the journey, and she said I must eat. But the food was terrible, so as usual I didn’t eat. I’m fussy at the best of times and Nasrine gets very cross as all I will drink is tea. If she changes one ingredient in a dish I like I always notice and won’t eat it.

  The first morning, Nasrine went off to get me breakfast and came back looking astonished. Another cousin of ours called Mohammed was in the queue – we had last seen him in Manbij.

  After all our experiences on this trip I had got used to being in a camp and having lots of people around, but it was boring, particularly because I mostly stayed in the room. There was a small yard which Nasrine pushed me round for some fresh air and there was a daily German lesson at 2 p.m., but they taught only basic things like numbers, days and months which I had already learnt.

  We ended up in Essen for twenty days. We were worrying about where they would send us. We heard they were running out of space for refugees and were worried we might end up sleeping in a sports hall. I used the disabled card to ask to speak to the head of camps and explained I couldn’t live in a stadium, and anyway we wanted to go to Wesseling near Cologne as our brother was there and could help us.

  On 28 September, after we had been there for four days, I was feeling really down. I’d thought we would arrive in Germany and I would go to school and instead I was stuck in a camp. That morning Nasrine and Nahda had gone to a room where donated clothes were handed out, and they left me watching the kids. They were very naughty and I had nothing but my voice to control them with and ended up screaming at them. It made me feel how weak and useless I was, and I burst into tears.

  Then Nasrine came in holding her phone and said she had a surprise for me.

  ‘What is it – Masoud Ba
rzani [the President of Iraqi Kurdistan] wants to speak to me?’ I joked.

  ‘No,’ she replied. ‘Look at this.’

  She opened a link to show me a video. It was an American TV show called Last Week Tonight hosted by a British man called John Oliver and he was talking about refugees. Annoyingly, the wifi in the camp was very slow with so many refugees using it and the video kept stopping. Then he showed me talking to the BBC reporter Fergal Keane about wanting to be an astronaut and meet the Queen. I almost dropped the phone.

  John Oliver explained how I had learnt English from Days of Our Lives and was sad about EJ being killed off. ‘How can you not want this girl in your country?’ he asked. ‘She would improve any country that would have her.’ I couldn’t believe he was talking about me. But that wasn’t all. He talked about the bad situation faced by refugees, the way the British Prime Minister David Cameron had called us a ‘swarm’, how Denmark was taking out ads in Lebanese papers saying ‘Don’t come’, and the hostility in Hungary including the camerawoman sticking out her foot.

  Then he said we have a surprise for one refugee. They showed film of a man’s hand ringing a doorbell. The person opening the door was Sami from Days of Our Lives and as she opened it, the man standing there was EJ! ‘No way!’ she screamed. I screamed too. Then of course they embraced. EJ explained that after he’d been shot, his sister had rescued him from the morgue, flown him to Germany and witchdoctors had performed magic to resurrect him.

  ‘I can’t imagine how horrible that was for you,’ said Sami.

  ‘Coming back from the dead is not hard,’ he replied. ‘You know what’s hard – getting from Syria to Germany.’ He talked a little about the migrant crisis. Then he said he had read about ‘this incredible sixteen-year old from Kobane called Nujeen Mustafa’.

  ‘Nujeen Mustafa.’ Sami repeated my name like it was something wondrous.

  I was totally astonished, yelling and screaming. My favourite characters on my favourite soap opera far away in America talking about me. They brought someone back from the dead for a Syrian refugee! Also I didn’t expect to see them in love again.

  Shortly afterwards I got a call from a lady in America to ask me if I liked the video. Of course, I said. Then she said the actors, Alison Sweeney and James Scott, who play Sami and EJ, would like to talk to me. When they came on the phone I was so excited I didn’t know what to say. I told them how the first thing I had done when I got internet in Turkey was Google them and I knew Alison was married with two children. I said the show was flavourless without them. I probably sounded like a silly fan.

  Nasrine was in shock. ‘For three years you have been going on about these people in an American soap opera,’ she said. ‘Now they are chasing you. How on earth did they reach you?’

  The next day I watched it again, then made a video message from our small room and posted it on YouTube. ‘This is my lucky day,’ I said. ‘And in my lucky day I have something to say to the victims of the wars around the world. You are stronger and braver than you think. Also thank everyone for supporting me during my journey. Wish me luck and good luck for you!’

  Yet the following morning I woke and felt as if something had been stolen from me. Days of Our Lives had been my own thing, it was private. Also the video clip wasn’t realistic – EJ and Sami would have had a fight. I would have liked that better than them talking about me.

  PART THREE

  A Normal Life

  Germany, 2015–

  After all, tomorrow is another day.

  Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

  18

  Foreigners in a Foreign Land

  Cologne, 1 November 2015

  Nobody leaves their home without a reason. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night with nightmares about the bombing and reach for my mum and she is not there and I feel sad. But after two or three minutes I think, Nujeen, you are still alive and far from bombing, everything is OK. Here in Germany, I feel safe. You can go for a walk and don’t expect to be dead by morning. There’s no bombing, no tanks, no army, no Daesh on the street.

  On 1 November we moved into our new home which is the ground floor of a two-storey German house on a suburban street in a small town called Wesseling, 10 miles south of Cologne. It’s made of concrete and bricks rather than gingerbread and is brown and cream rather than pink or blue, but to me it still feels like Disneyland, the kind of place I always dreamt of living in.

  We have a living room, a small shower room, a kitchen and just two bedrooms, which is quite tight for us three sisters and the four children, particularly as Bland often stays with us. But it is ours – and only ours. We have a sofa and a table, a clock on the wall and a Christmas biscuit tin someone gave us as decoration. I wish we had something from Syria – one fellow refugee told us she had brought her falafel moulds all the way across Europe. We don’t even have a photograph of the family in Aleppo – I suppose had we known when we left four years ago that we would be separated and not return, we would have taken one, but at the time we were mainly concerned with survival.

  The house is provided by the German state, which also pays the bills. They give us each 325 euros per month for adults and 180 for each child, which we use to pay for food, clothes and transport. We don’t need to rely any more on Mustafa.

  It’s our second home in Cologne. When we were first moved from the camp in Essen on 15 October, it was to a block of refugee apartments. The apartment was on the first floor up a flight of steps which wasn’t very easy for me and we had to share it with an Algerian family – a widow, her daughter and a grandchild. We had two bedrooms and they had two bedrooms, but we shared the bathroom and kitchen. We were each given a mattress, blanket, cooking pot, dish, knife, fork and spoon. The apartment was heated by a coal fire which didn’t work well, so it was very cold and bad for my asthma.

  The biggest problem, however, was that the woman’s husband who was Syrian had just died and lots of her Algerian relatives came from France for the funeral. Six adults and four kids came to stay and every day there was a stream of visitors who had to be fed. It was crazy, and it was impossible for us to get into the kitchen. We had to ask Bland to bring us food.

  After a week we went to Social Services and told them we couldn’t stay there. Eventually they found us this house on a broad street of German families. We don’t know our neighbours. For us Germany is a cold place – people don’t go into each other’s houses the way we do back home. They don’t appreciate family ties like we do. I’d seen in movies how children leave their parents behind, so I knew, but to see it in real life is strange for us.

  Germany is very funny. The people are like machines – they get up at a certain time, eat at a certain time and get very stressed if a train is two minutes late. We laugh at their discipline, but we like the fact that everything is very correct, not like Syria where getting a good job depends on knowing someone high up in the regime. Here everyone pays their taxes, everything is so clean and everyone seems so hard working – that’s why Germany produces so much.

  Bland even likes the weather, particularly the rain. I like the way there are seasons, different colours of leaves and different clouds. Occasionally, I miss the stars we used to watch from our roof in Manbij. Most of all we all like the fact we are safe. The biggest challenge is language. Nahda says it is hard for her at thirty-four to learn a new language. She is sad that her law degree, which was so hard won as the first woman in our family to go to university, is now worthless, but she is happy to see her children going to school without fear.

  I miss flatbread and still find it odd that everyone eats with a knife and fork instead of their hands. I miss the familiarity of Syria – here I’m not familiar with anything and always worry that some of my behaviour might give the wrong impression even though it is normal in my country.

  There is only one black cloud over our new home – the people upstairs don’t seem to like us. They are a middle-aged German couple with a gr
own-up son and as soon as we moved in they complained to Social Services: why do we have refugees downstairs? Once Nahda’s children were playing and the woman came out screaming and called the police. We were scared that maybe we would be taken away, so we try to be very quiet and stop the children from making any noise so she won’t complain. Even so, she still shouts at us a lot.

  We were shocked that somebody would have a problem with us – we are just a group of young women and little girls and my sisters always keep everything spotlessly clean. We wear jeans and shirts, not some kind of Daesh hijab. I guess she has a problem with refugees, not with us in particular. I hadn’t really thought about what it meant to be a refugee, that you have no rights, and that people might be intimidated and look at you as aliens or as people with no lives who kill each other, not realizing that we do the same as them – get up in the morning, brush our teeth and go to school or work.

  We had only just moved out of the camp when there was shocking news. On Saturday 17 October a politician called Henriette Reker, who was running for mayor of Cologne, was stabbed in the neck while she was out campaigning. She had been handing out roses at a market when a man came forward with a rose, pulled out a 12-inch knife and thrust it in her neck, severing her windpipe and leaving her bleeding on the ground.

  The man was a forty-four-year-old unemployed handyman called Frank S. and he was angry about immigration. Frau Reker had been the head of refugee services in Cologne for the last five years and was very supportive of our plight, calling for social integration as more and more of us arrived in the city – 10,000 in the last year and 200–300 more arriving on trains every day. I heard he shouted something like ‘This serves you right!’ as she fell to the ground. Then he slashed four of her staff, supposedly shouting, ‘Foreigners are taking our jobs.’

 
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