Nujeen, p.8Nujeen Mustafa
I started being more targeted. I watched Dr Oz, a programme about health, for medical words, thinking maybe one day I would go to a hospital outside for treatment; Masterchef for food and culinary terms; America’s Got Talent for cultural references; wildlife programmes for names of animals; documentaries for historical and scientific thought which could be useful if I ever went to college (even if I had never been to school!). But general conversation was of course from Days. Sometimes these characters seemed more real to me than my own brothers who I rarely saw. I was desperate that their story should end in the way I wanted. Something had to have a happy ending.
Forgive Me, Syria
Manbij, July–August 2014
It was Shiar who made us leave Syria in the end. He had been shocked at how we were living with the bombs and the jihadis and had kept on at us ever since he got back to Germany.
That spring and summer of 2014 felt like everything was coming to a head. First we heard that the writer Gabriel García Márquez had died, so Nasrine and I were very upset. Then EJ was killed off in Days of Our Lives. He and Sami had finally reconciled, then he was betrayed and killed by his own bodyguard. I guess I had known it was going to happen and was kind of pleased that I had second-guessed the show’s writers, but still it left a big hole in my life.
Assad forces had disappeared from our area as they were busy defending Damascus, and now Kurdish militias, YPG, were the ones fighting Daesh. We Kurds are Muslims but we are not obsessed by that – our culture is more how we identify ourselves. People started to talk about our area as Rojavo – our Kurdish state.
In January Daesh set up their headquarters in the town of Raqqa, which was less than 100 miles away. In Manbij they had become stricter. Apart from forcing women to wear niqab, they told men to go to prayers at the mosque five times a day. They had beheaded a boy of fourteen who they accused of raping an old woman, and the mother died of sadness. They also banned music. I had just discovered classical music and adored the Spanish guitar of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and Andrea Bocelli singing ‘Time to Say Goodbye’. Actually I was annoyed: how come I hadn’t discovered this before? I thought I was good at discovering things!
In June Daesh caught everyone by surprise by capturing the Kurdish city of Mosul in northern Iraq and marching towards Baghdad. They released a video of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving a sermon from the mosque, proclaiming a caliphate which he said would stretch all the way to Spain. ‘This is a duty upon Muslims,’ he said. ‘A duty that has been lost for centuries and they must always seek to establish it.’
I mean there hasn’t been a caliphate for a thousand years. Move on, Baghdadi! And if you are going to take us back in time, ditch the Rolex watch. Anyway it was on all the international news broadcasts, and suddenly everyone in the West seemed to be talking about nothing but Daesh, like they had just discovered them.
One day Nasrine and Bland were in a car driving round the roundabout when they noticed there was a head on a spike. It started happening more and more. Another day gunmen came to the house of Aunt Shamsa and Uncle Bozan, whose son had been kidnapped, and fired in the air then banged on the door – maybe because they had two nice cars outside. No one was home, but as soon as my aunt and uncle came back and heard what had happened they decided to leave and move to Kobane.
Later they called us with a terrible story. Aunt Shamsa told us that their neighbour who was also a Kurd had a beautiful daughter, and one day when her father was not at home militants from Daesh came wanting to take her away. Her thirteen-year-old brother tried to stop them, but they killed him. A day later they returned and said, ‘She must marry our Emir. Make her ready tomorrow, and we will collect her.’ Her terrified parents had no choice. The men came back and took her, and after a week she was allowed home for a day. Her mother asked her, ‘Who is your husband, is he a good man?’ The girl started crying. ‘You think you let me marry one man?’ she said. ‘Every night I have ten men.’
The next day our family left.
Only it wasn’t our whole family. My parents were staying behind to look after the house. They said they would come soon, but I remembered Ayee’s promises when we left Aleppo that we would go back after the Eid holiday, and since then two more Eids had passed. And in my heart I knew they didn’t want to leave Syria. Tears ran down my face as we said goodbye. I clung to Ayee. I had never been separated from her before. We had always slept together.
We left in the morning after a breakfast of flatbread dipped in olive oil flavoured with oregano, sumac and sesame seeds, kind of our version of peanut-butter sandwiches. Mustafa had gone ahead to the Turkish town of Gaziantep, where many Syrians were living, to find us an apartment. Uncle Ahmed was driving us in his car as he had a passport, so could cross the border. Bland sat in the front and me, Nasrine and Mustafa’s wife Dozgeen, who already seemed like she had always been part of the family, were squashed into the back. There wasn’t much room with all our stuff. They were all wearing burqas. It was a beautiful sunny day, and to anyone watching we could have been a normal family on a day trip. The evil white cat with the orange eyepatch and throat tumour was standing on the roof watching us. I wouldn’t be sorry to leave them. They were like Daesh cats.
It was less than an hour to the border. Soon we were driving up to the rolling green hills and golden wheat fields beyond which lay Turkey. Our plan was to cross at Jarablus, which is on the west bank of the Euphrates and was also under Daesh control. As we got near we saw their black flag flying. It was the first time I had seen it. I couldn’t help remembering the reports from January when there was fighting in Jarablus and Daesh commanders shot people dead and beheaded rebel commanders, sticking their heads on spikes, in the main square. I hoped I wouldn’t see anything like that.
Moments later we rounded a bend and saw a roadblock. Men in dark clothes were holding up their guns to stop us. They were scary with their long beards, long hair and short trousers and guns pointing at us. It was like an action movie.
My uncle rolled down the windows. It felt like even the birds had stopped singing.
The militants pointed at me. ‘Why isn’t she wearing a veil?’ they demanded. Their Arabic was strange to us. I was so scared I was quivering.
‘She is only twelve,’ said Bland, ‘and she is disabled.’
The men conferred for a while. Then one of them turned back to Bland. ‘Tell the girl to cover her head in future,’ they told him, as if I were deaf.
They let us through and we continued. We could see a huge red Turkish flag with its white crescent moon and star the other side. There were hundreds of other Syrians at the crossing point, mostly on foot, with suitcases and bundles of possessions. It was the first time I realized we were refugees.
My uncle, who like Mustafa crossed back and forth bringing in phones for his business, knew one of the border officials, so we didn’t have to queue. He said it used to be easy crossing – Turks and Syrians would pop across from one side to the other, the Turks for cheap petrol and cigarettes and us Syrians to buy luxury goods, almost as if there was no border.
Those were the days when Assad and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan were allies and friends. That had changed. Assad had taken no notice of Turkish officials who came to Damascus in the early days of the revolution to try to persuade him to listen to protesters and introduce reforms. When their pleas fell on deaf ears, Erdoğan let the first main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, organize a government in exile in Istanbul, and the FSA have training camps near the border.
Uncle Ahmed slipped the border official a wad of notes, but his contact said only he and I could go through. Bland said he would go and talk to someone. We waited for four hours in the car. The day got hotter. While we were waiting I asked Uncle Ahmed information questions like why the Turkish flag has a moon and a star (he said they came in the dream of the first Ottoman ruler) and what is the population of Turkey compared to Syria (80 million compared to 23 millio
When Bland came back he said it was not possible to cross there, but he had heard of another place so he, Nasrine and Dozgeen got a taxi to a village called Arai where smugglers help you cross. They paid $50 each and were put with a group of around twenty refugees. The smuggler told them to walk a little towards the border fence and then hide in the nearby bushes. After about half an hour of waiting he gave them the signal that they could cross. The border was just a small fence that they could easily step over. They walked for about half an hour over the other side to a spot where a van was waiting for them to take them to meet us.
Back at Jarablus, Uncle Ahmed and I simply drove across. It seemed a mundane journey for something that was such a momentous change. On a wall someone had painted ‘Your homeland is not a hotel you can check out of if the service is bad’. Tears ran down my face. It was hard to believe Aleppo was only two hours away. I had no friends to say goodbye to and my brother and sister were going to be with me, but I still felt sad. Forgive us, Syria, I whispered.
After picking up Bland, Nasrine and Dozgeen, who were hot and excited after their adventure, we drove for a while along a road parallel to the border. Every so often we saw vast encampments of white tents. Turkey had been welcoming refugees and had provided a number of camps along the border. First a small trickle arrived, then 10,000 in the first year, and now there was a flood. Half a million or more Syrians had crossed the border before us. So many were leaving it felt as if Assad would be left with a country of no people, or just his Alawites. The camps were all full, and we saw people sleeping on the sides of the highway under branches and sheets. I was glad we had a place to go.
The drive to Gaziantep was about three hours. I suddenly felt terribly tired. I was excited to be in a new country, happy to be away from bombs and Daesh, as if a weight had come off us, but I was missing my parents.
We entered Gaziantep as dusk fell. It was a huge town with an imposing stone fortress, and the hills were covered with stone houses in shades of grey, pink and ochre and mosques with shiny gold crescents on top of the minarets. There were lights everywhere. It was so long since we had seen working streetlights. The streets were busy with people out on a Friday night. Our eyes popped at the women in tight jeans and T-shirts or tiny mini-skirts, and the boys and girls out together. There were roads lined with mobile-phone shops and bakeries selling the local baklava sweets and restaurants with tables spilling out on to the pavement. We saw movie theatres, shopping malls, and families in parks. When we opened the windows it smelled of pistachios and rosewater and hookah pipes. ‘It’s like Aleppo used to be,’ said Nasrine.
Our new home was in a suburb called Jinderes in the north of the city, where more of the women were in kaftans and scarves. Bland explained that it was a Kurdish area. A lot of refugees were staying with relatives, but we were lucky to have Mustafa and Shiar to contribute and they had rented us a first-floor apartment on a main street, over a supermarket, with a Syrian kebab shop just a few doors away. Bland carried me upstairs. Only one floor this time, not five. The apartment was light and airy with a large room scattered with cushions for us all to sleep in, and a TV of course. Immediately I started searching for familiar channels like National Geographic, and MBC4 for Days of Our Lives.
We also had the internet. I had never used Google before. The first thing I searched was Days of Our Lives. Imagine my astonishment to discover it was the longest-running soap opera in America.
The first night Nasrine and I watched a movie about a quiz show in India called Slumdog Millionaire. The poor boy is part of a gang he calls the Three Musketeers and is one question away from the big prize. The question is the name of the Third Musketeer and he doesn’t know! I realized then that I didn’t know the names of the actors playing my favourite characters EJ and Sami. Immediately I Googled them.
I didn’t have to wait so long to see my parents in the end. Just fifteen days after we left my mum fell ill in Manbij with a respiratory attack. Mustafa was in the house and took her to hospital. When they got there it was full of men with long beards and long hair in their dark uniforms scaring people. They were only allowing people in who were critically ill, especially those hurt in bombardments. Ayee was struggling to breathe, but they told her there were no doctors and she should leave. The next day Mustafa brought my parents to Gaziantep.
We were all together again, even if it was in a different country. And there was no bombing. ‘You know those two years in Manbij felt like ten,’ Ayee admitted a few days later.
Yet somehow I knew that Gaziantep wouldn’t be the end of the journey. Shiar had mentioned Germany. I didn’t tell anyone, but one night when everyone was sleeping I borrowed Shiar’s laptop and Googled ‘Germany cures for cerebral palsy’.
Europe, August–September 2015
To be a successful migrant you need to know the law. You need to be resourceful. You need a smartphone and to be on Facebook and WhatsApp. You need some money. Ideally you know a bit of English. And in my case you need a sister to push your wheelchair.
Widen Your World
Gaziantep, Saturday 22 August 2015
It wasn’t easy saying goodbye. The night before, Ayee had made my favourite dinner which was a traditional Kurdish dish of turkey with bulgur wheat and parsley – very spicy if you haven’t had it. Nasrine counted our money – she had a neck purse with $300 and 1,300 Turkish lire (euros we would get en route) – then checked through our things. She had bought a grey backpack printed with the words Touching Air and in it had packed a change of clothes for us both – a shirt and jeans – as well as pyjamas, underwear, toothbrushes and a charger for her phone which was the most essential item. I also had a walking frame, which was a bit awkward to carry but might be useful for going to bathrooms. It didn’t seem very much for such a long journey.
My father was very tearful as he always says family is the most important thing in life. ‘Pray for our safe journey, Yaba,’ I told him. I didn’t want him to come to the airport as I knew he would get too emotional and I don’t like people getting emotional.
Only Ayee and Mustafa came to see us off. Before we left my mother took off my gold necklace from Aleppo, which was the only precious thing I had, as we had heard that there could be robbers along the way. She put it round her own neck and started crying. ‘Oh God, I am not going to New York or LA, only to Europe,’ I told her crossly. Then Nasrine pushed me away, past a big advert for Turkish Airlines proclaiming ‘Widen Your World’, and I waved goodbye.
I didn’t really see it as goodbye. I was sure we would see them again soon. And I was excited. Me, who had spent so many years barely leaving the fifth-floor apartment in Aleppo, now headed all the way to Germany! We would fly west across Turkey to İzmir then across sea and land to Germany to join Bland, who had left four months earlier. I had Googled where he was in Dortmund and it was 1,800 miles as the crow flies, which is an odd expression as crows don’t really fly straight, and 2,300 miles by road.
My parents said they were too old to make such a journey, and Mustafa needed to keep earning money to pay their rent and for our trip. So it would be just me and Nasrine. And my wheelchair, which we had recently got from a charity.
We decided to leave because life had stopped in Gaziantep. The Turks might have let us into their country but they didn’t like us. Once we had been proud Syrians from an ancient culture. Now we were refugees – nothing. Bland couldn’t work, Nasrine couldn’t study. On the plus side there were no wild cats and dogs and no bombs or shelling, though if anyone dropped anything or if a car exhaust backfired we jumped. But truly it was pretty miserable for us Syrians in Turkey. On top of that we were Kurds. The only way to work was illegally, and then you were at the mercy of Turkish boss
It was OK for me as I busied myself watching the TV to improve my English (not Turkish, which I thought was a terrible ugly language) and using the internet to get more information. The feeling of getting new information is a beautiful one, and Shiar had lent me a laptop so I could look up anything. It was like a treasure trove. Who invented Tom and Jerry? How rich is Mark Zuckerberg? How did Stephenie Meyer come up with the idea of vampires for the Twilight books? And most importantly I Googled all about James Scott and Alison Sweeney, the actors playing EJ and Sami in Days.
I had also become obsessed with Queen Victoria and how when her husband died she wore black for the rest of her life – and it was a long life, for Albert died when she was forty-two and she lived to be eighty-one.
It’s funny because in films she seems very dour, but then I found she had kept all these diaries which you can read online. So I did – though not all 141 volumes! – and it turns out she was not like that at all. Albert was her cousin and a German and she had to propose to him because she was queen. What I liked about her was she became queen so terribly young, just eighteen, and married at twenty, but she didn’t lose her foolishness. Even though she was the most powerful person in the world, she wrote in her diary about being madly in love like a teenager, and staring at Albert’s ‘beautiful face’ the morning after their wedding, and how they talked about opera, architecture and exhibitions. I hate it when women give up their true natures; you should be crazy, fall in love, cry over movies and sing in the rain, however powerful you become.
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