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       Nujeen, p.17

           Nujeen Mustafa
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  We were horrified that this kind lady should be attacked for standing up for refugees – striking down politicians seemed more like the sort of thing that happened in our country. That night we all prayed for her. Frau Reker was in a coma in hospital when the election took place the next day. She won with more than 52 per cent of the vote. Thank God she recovered and became Cologne’s first female mayor.

  As for Frank S., it turned out he had long been involved in neo-Nazi movements and had already spent three years in jail for assault. He had even participated in a demonstration in honour of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, who committed suicide in prison in 1987.

  Fortunately, most Germans are not like that. On the contrary they are very welcoming, almost like they want to make up for the Second World War. One day we went on an outing by bus to the nearby town of Brühl where there is a big yellow palace with ornamental gardens with so many fountains and a lake. As we walked round the lake, people smiled and even the ducks seemed to welcome us. At Christmas two people knocked on our door bearing a lot of gifts for each of us kids, including me. I was glad to still be considered a kid. And another day Nasrine and I were just arriving back from a doctor appointment and met one of our neighbours from along the street. He handed her a bag – it was full of chocolate.

  Less than two weeks after we moved into the house, Shiar came over and we watched football on his laptop just as we used to. The match was France vs Germany in Paris and we supported Germany as our new country against our old occupier, but unfortunately they lost 2–0. We were chatting after the game when suddenly we noticed that all the spectators were gathering on the pitch. At first we thought they were celebrating, but then we listened to the commentary. There had been a terror attack – three suicide bombers had blown themselves up outside the stadium – so police were keeping everyone inside. The players even ended up sleeping there.

  Then we heard there was shooting in bars and restaurants where people were enjoying a night out and inside a theatre called the Bataclan where lots of young people were listening to an American heavy-metal band. In total that night 130 people were killed.

  Not long afterwards Daesh issued a statement claiming responsibility. ‘Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign … and boast about their war against Islam in France, and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets.’

  ‘This is just the beginning of the storm,’ it warned.

  We were all very upset. Of course we had never been to Paris, but everyone knows it as the City of Light. ‘This world has gone crazy,’ said Nasrine. ‘One of the most beautiful cities in the world being turned into a funeral is very sad. What kind of people think that because people in Syria are dying that people in Paris should too?’

  Soon the attacks were linked to the refugee crisis because a Syrian passport was found near one of the suicide bombers who blew himself up outside the football stadium. It was in the name of Ahmad al-Mohammad, a twenty-five-year-old from Idlib, and Greek officials said the bomber’s fingerprints matched a set taken in October when a person with that passport entered the Greek island of Leros from Turkey. Like us, the man later entered Serbia, where authorities took fingerprints matching those taken in Greece. The following day he crossed into Croatia, according to a Serbian security official.

  The French Prime Minister said, ‘These individuals took advantage of the refugee crisis … of the chaos, perhaps, for some of them to slip in’ to France. Another of the bombers, Najim Laachroui, had been fighting with Daesh in Syria and travelled out hidden among refugees in early September to Budapest, where he was picked up by another bomber.

  It was horrible to think that maybe people travelling among us, along the paths through the sunflowers and on the buses and trains, had been terrorists. Though, as Bland said, it seemed odd to take a passport to blow yourself up, and on our journey we had seen plenty of smugglers selling fake ones.

  We were very worried that people would think refugees were terrorists and be scared of us. We are running from terrorism ourselves, just looking for safety because these sort of attacks are happening in our own country. We don’t want to harm anyone.

  After the attacks there were some demonstrations against migrants. Germany started reviewing Syrian asylum claims rather than broadly accepting them as they had been all year. That was not good for us as we were still waiting for our interviews. Some people even set fire to refugee shelters – over 800 were attacked in 2015. But generally the Germans were still open and friendly, as they had been ever since we arrived. Maybe it’s easier for me being in a wheelchair as I look benign.

  When I heard about such things as the Paris attacks I was glad we had no TV. There are lots of bad things going on in the world and I don’t want to watch. This is an old Nujeen principle: if you want to stay happy and healthy, don’t watch the news.


  A Schoolgirl at Last

  Cologne, 30 November 2015

  The first day I ever went to school I was just one month shy of my seventeenth birthday. I was nervous but also happy, for finally I could say I have done something normal in my life. Of course it wasn’t like in my dreams, where I thought I’d look like a girl in an American movie, walking along carrying my books, hair swinging and chatting with friends about boyfriends or movies.

  In those dreams maybe after school we’d go to an ice-cream bar and I’d ask my friends if they knew the story of the Pharaoh and the Sphinx. If they said no, I would tell them how the Egyptian prince Thutmose had gone hunting for gazelle in the desert near the Pyramids and lay down in the heat of the day for a rest under the shade of the Sphinx. While he was sleeping he had a vision in which the Sphinx appeared and told him, ‘If you clear all the sand that is burying me you will become king.’ So he did and became Pharaoh Thutmose instead of any of his brothers, and to this day the whole story is inscribed on a pink granite slab between the Sphinx’s paws. I would be like the smart girl, the nerdy girl in the group. That’s what I imagine. Then I look down and see I am surrounded by these wheels and it’s back to reality. Yes, I am in a wheelchair and my school is a special school, not something out of High School Musical.

  A bus comes and picks me up at seven o’clock every morning to take me to the LVR-Christophorusschule in Bonn, which runs from 8 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. The school is a big cream two-storey building with green panels in the front and a concrete roof terrace, and as you enter, instead of bikes and scooters, there are piles of wheelchairs and walkers. There are also two football tables which one day I want to play.

  I am in a class of ten fifteen-year-olds, so I am the oldest in the class and feel like an old woman. They are mostly Germans, but one girl was born in America, another boy has an American father and an English mother, and one is Jordanian. All have different ways of being ‘special’, some have no physical problems but are autistic, a couple don’t speak and use iPads to communicate like Stephen Hawking, though they are not as smart! One just has red and yellow buttons to push which play recorded messages to indicate what she wants.

  That first day was hard as of course I hardly spoke any German. Luckily the first lesson I was taken to was English, so I looked like a master. Then we cooked a pie and some kind of biscuit, which was odd for me as I had never cooked. I am not good with my hands, so I made quite a mess.

  We have three teachers for my class, and they teach us German, maths, history, English and science. To start with I had a lot of difficulty. In maths I couldn’t keep my work on the lines in the exercise book and I’d never done things like multiplication. The teachers and other pupils were astonished that I had never done it before, but I am a fast learner and I just do the only thing that I am good at which is listening, listening, listening. When I get frustrated because I can’t do something, I reassure myself that a lot of fa
mous people were refugees – Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Gloria Estefan, George Soros. Even Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee.

  We have sports like swimming which I don’t do, and we break for lunch. But of course I don’t like school food, so Nasrine gets up at 6 a.m. to prepare me a flask of tea and a sandwich. The teachers complain that I don’t socialize, but I want to spend the time learning and, as I tell them, I am not really a social person. All my life I just stayed in a circle I felt comfortable with and grew up among adults. It’s not that I don’t like the other children. There is a sweet girl called Lily and others I like called Carmen and Amber. But they have different interests – the others talk about Justin Bieber and movies like Frozen, not like Gone with the Wind.

  I like biology because it helps with learning everything about the body in case I get sick and need to go to the doctor. And of course physics because of wanting to be an astronaut, though the first time I did it I came home and cried because it didn’t seem like the physics of someone who was going to be a great scientist. Instead of learning about space or gravity, we were making Christmas trees on a wooden board. Even worse, because of my weak limbs and awkward fingers, I couldn’t hold the board still to screw in the tree. It looked kind of ridiculous and when I took it home Nahda’s kids broke it apart.

  The point of this school is to train us to be as independent as possible, and when we finish here at eighteen, we do training in what they call vocational work. We have no facilities like this in Syria and I know I am very lucky – even some people in Germany think that special schools like this are too costly and that disabled people should go to school with everyone else. Maybe one day I will. I know that I didn’t confront my disability in Syria because I didn’t go out and so avoided people looking at me. The teachers here think I need to be realistic and accept how I am and get on with it, learn to eat by myself and move my chair, not keep talking about being an astronaut or walking. But I can’t get out of my head once seeing Nasrine sitting in my wheelchair when we were in a park in Turkey and how ugly I thought that looked.

  And after the soap opera that happened to my life, I think everything is possible.

  At the school I go to a physiotherapist who is very nice, but she was shocked I had not done any exercises for so many years. I explained about the asthma and the revolution and the war which stopped everything. She gets me to stretch on a mat to be more flexible and to use a kind of bicycle to build up my muscles. Already I am feeling a difference.

  Just after I started school I went to a hospital in Bonn for tests. That’s the first time I learnt the proper name of what I have wrong with me – tetra-spasticity. The bad news is that the doctor explained that it won’t go away and I will have to learn to live with it. He said I will have to have another operation and prescribed me special pills to reduce my overactive legs – somehow the pills stop the charge from my brain to my nerves which make everything stiff and my legs go up in the air. I am lucky because I only have Stage One. If I had Stage Two, Three or Four like some of the children in my school, I wouldn’t be able to hold a pen.

  The school also sent me to an ophthalmologist and a dentist. ‘There’s a lot to be fixed!’ I told them.

  Nasrine came to my school one day and she pointed out that some of my classmates are much more disabled than me yet much more independent. They can move around on their own, get their own drinks and meals, not waiting for a sister. So now I am trying to be more independent. For the first time I get dressed myself and brush my own hair, though Nasrine still has to get up early to get me ready in the mornings. I still dream that one day Nasrine will get married and have kids, and I go to college and she help me with physics.

  I can’t imagine anyone marrying someone who can’t stand up. I do think I have the ability to love someone and have this image of being a mum, but am scared to think about these things. In our society we don’t have that movie kind of love. Marriage is something my mum should arrange but whenever I talk about it with her Ayee immediately says ‘Stop’. Maybe I will turn fully into a German and follow their way of marriage. Anyway, for now I’m too young and have a lot of other things to think about.

  I feel like I missed a lot. I mean I am only now going to school, so if I go to college I will be thirty when I finish. The main thing is I finally got the normal life I dreamt of, waking in the morning, going to school, then doing homework. I just wish Ayee and Yaba could come and see me doing these things, waking up early, going to school with my pink and blue rucksack full of red subject folders.


  A Scary New Year

  Cologne, 1 January 2016

  Today I turned seventeen, my first birthday in our new country. We didn’t celebrate – I haven’t celebrated my birthday since the war started and we left Aleppo. But there was a surprise. A package arrived with a present from James, the actor who played EJ, a silver necklace with a sea-goat, the symbol of my star sign Capricorn. Nasrine couldn’t believe it.

  It turned out not to be a good day. What we didn’t know till later was that the night before, New Year’s Eve, something terrible had happened. Just like our Newroz back home, the Germans welcome in the New Year with fireworks and parties. In Cologne they usually gather round the cathedral. That night, in the square next to the station, more than 600 women were attacked, many of them sexually assaulted. Gangs of drunken men with ‘large bloodshot eyes’ had rampaged through the crowds, sexually assaulting young women, stealing their money and phones. Some had their knickers torn off or firecrackers thrown in their clothes.

  The police tried to suppress news of what had happened, maybe from fear of fuelling tensions, and it took a few days for the reports to come out. When they did there was mass hysteria because Ralf Jäger, the Interior Minister for the state, said the attackers were ‘exclusively’ people from ‘a migrant background’. People were shocked, and the opposition said that’s what happens when you let too many in. An organization named Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, called for refugees to go, shouting, ‘Germany for Germans!’

  We didn’t know what to think. We couldn’t imagine Syrian men we know ever doing such a thing. As Nasrine says, ‘The problem is there are good refugees and bad refugees, just as there are well-educated people who judge people on who they are, not where they are from, and ill-educated people who don’t.’ Our culture is different and maybe some Muslim men, because they see German girls very scantily clad or they hear about girls getting pregnant without being married, get the wrong idea of how to behave. But molestation is bad anywhere.

  One group of Syrian and Pakistani refugees were so upset they wrote to Angela Merkel to say, ‘We strive to uphold the dignity and honour of women. We respect the laws of our host country without question. We are happy to have been given protection in Germany.’ Anyway it didn’t take long for a lynch mob to descend on the area and attack migrants. Two Pakistani men were badly beaten, as well as three Guineans and two Syrians. There were also demonstrations where people held placards proclaiming ‘Rape Refugees Not Welcome – Stay Away!’

  It turned out there had been similar attacks on New Year’s Eve in Hamburg and other cities and the mood was changing. Around the country there were more arson attacks on shelters, and the Central Council for Muslims, which is the main Muslim group in Germany, got so many abusive calls that it was forced to disconnect its phone lines. The Council’s President Almin Mazjek said, ‘We are experiencing a new dimension of hatred … the far right sees its prejudices confirmed and an opportunity to give free rein to hatred of Muslims and foreigners.’

  We were scared even more than after the Paris attacks because this was here, where we were living. We feared that the attacks and the anger they had stirred up might have long-term consequences, that the German opposition would say, ‘Oh God, what have you done, Mrs Merkel? You have brought these weird plants to our soil,’ and she might feel regret and change her mind. Less than half of German
s supported her stance, and I don’t believe politicians ever do something without putting their own interests first. This is the real world and I wish I lived in a better one.

  We started to worry that we would be kicked out, and we didn’t know where to run. People will become aggressive, we thought, it’s going to get worse and we need to be ready. We expected lots of protesting and people saying, ‘Close the door.’

  ‘We have to be ambassadors for our country and refugees,’ I told Nasrine.

  The police in Cologne arrested fifty-eight people. But in February a report by the local public prosecutor Ulrich Bremer said that only three of the arrested men were refugees – two Syrians and one Iraqi. The others were North African immigrants who had lived in the country a long time, and three were Germans.

  Now there are police and public order vans outside the cathedral every night as a reminder of that terrible New Year’s Eve. Thank God Mrs Merkel continued to resist demands to close the borders to migrants. And refugees kept coming.

  A total of 91,700 entered Germany in January 2016 – about 3,000 a day, less than a third of the peak when we came the previous autumn but still more than what government officials say they can handle. In 2015, Germany registered 1.1 million requests for asylum, more than five times the number in 2014. The biggest category were Syrians.

  One of them was my third sister Nahra, the fashion-loving one, who taught me to read. She came the same way as us, crossing the sea with her husband and their seven-month-old baby. It should have been harder going later, but the sea was so calm when they crossed that she filmed it on her phone!


  A Place Called Home

  Cologne, July 2016

  The other day I wrote a list of all the kings and queens of England since 1066 – I counted thirty-nine.

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