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Book Review: Nujeen
From Syria’s war zone to freedom
Jaelyn Feliciano
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The expression, “You can’t tell a book by its cover,” isn’t true with this book. On the cover of Nujeen, by Nujeen Mustafa, there is a picture of a teenage girl and the words: “One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair.” I wanted to know more about the refugee crisis and I thought reading this book would be the perfect way for me to learn about it from one girl’s point of view. I wasn’t disappointed.

In the first part of the book, Nujeen writes about her life before fleeing Syria. She was born in the small city of Manbij, but when she was 4 the family moved to Aleppo so Nujeen could get medical treatment for her asthma and cerebral palsy. “My brain…doesn’t send proper signals to my legs, so they have a life of their own. They kick up when I am speaking,” she writes. Nujeen can’t walk.

They also moved so that her older brother, Bland, and sister, Nahda, could attend the local university. Nujeen writes, “Aleppo was a place where many tourists came and which everyone says is beautiful, with its medieval citadel and Great Mosque.” She describes its “pale stone buildings that shone almond-pink in the late-afternoon sun.” Nujeen provides photographs in the book and you can see that Aleppo was a beautiful city with ancient architecture.

Syrian schools don’t make accommodations for kids with special needs, like they do here, so Nujeen educates herself and learns English by watching TV. Some of her favorites are National Geographic, the History Channel and the soap opera Days of our Lives. Nasrine, Nujeen’s other older sister, also teaches her a lot.

War Planes and Bombs

Then the civil war starts, and by 2014 Aleppo is dangerous. The family moves back to Manbij. But that too becomes a frequent bombsite. Nujeen is terrified when a war plane bombs the street just behind her house. She writes of an aunt and uncle being shot dead by ISIS snipers at a funeral, “A day I don’t want to think about.”

Her parents send Nujeen and Nasrine on a long route to Germany to live with their older brother, who moved there. A few other relatives join them. They travel by land, air, and sea.

Reading about a young woman fleeing Syria would be dramatic enough, but the fact that Nujeen was born with cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair makes the story even tenser. Nujeen writes about all the risk-taking—like having to trust strangers, particularly human smugglers, to help them get to their destinations. I feared that along the way Nujeen would be attacked or robbed. She mentions it happening to other refugees but not her.

image by Harper Wave

What It Feels Like to Be Nujeen

I like that Nujeen sprinkles facts throughout the book: “One in every 113 people in the world today are refugees or displaced from their homes.” “Four September 1998 was the date Google was established.” The scariest animal is “the piranha, which can eat a human in 90 seconds.” She loves watching tennis, football, and quiz shows like an Arabic version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? She says she can
usually answer all the questions.

The story isn’t just about Nujeen’s suspenseful journey. It’s also about how it feels to be disabled. For example, she feels embarrassed about the way she looks, how “my eyes roll around and go cross-eyed.” She also writes, “The worst thing about being disabled is you can’t just go away and cry somewhere on your own. You have no privacy.”

Nujeen’s family is Kurdish. I learned that they are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, yet they have never obtained their own permanent state or country. They have their own language and unique culture. Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

What Would Happen to Us?

Although the entire trip is nerve-wracking, I thought the most intense part of Nujeen’s journey was toward the end, when she is in Serbia at the Hungarian border. Crossing it will get them safely into Europe. But the border had been recently closed to refugees.

“Until then I thought of the journey as an adventure,” Nujeen writes. “Now I saw that there was a lot of grief…to be turned back now after all we had gone through would be unimaginable.”

While traveling, Nujeen overhears other refugees saying Croatia’s borders are open to refugees. They take a taxi from Serbia to Croatia; Croatian police load them in prisoner transporting vans, driving them to a nearby village. After that they take a taxi to Slovenia. Nujeen compares her experience to a computer game where they keep cutting off routes and you have to find another one. While reading these intense chapters, I thought Nujeen wouldn’t make it to Germany safely. I feared something terrible would happen.

image by YC-Art Dept

In Slovenia, police arrest the two young women. They are fingerprinted, locked in a cell, and told that they will be sent back to Croatia. However, the next day a Slovenian policeman tells them the Croatian government isn’t taking them back. Nujeen gets aggravated when an officer says she should apply for asylum in Slovenia, which would allow them to stay there legally. “You are supposed to protect refugees!” she tells him. “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?”

I couldn’t believe she had such guts! Had I been in her position I wouldn’t have stood up to those powerful officials. I would have feared they’d kill me or keep me locked up.

You will have to read the book to find out what happens next and how she finally makes it to Germany. I read a recent article in National Geographic about her and learned that she is now going to a special needs school and she has learned how to do “things she could never do in Syria, like play wheelchair basketball and dress herself.”

I liked the photographs. They show before and after pictures of Aleppo. The city was so beautiful but is now destroyed to rubble. They also showed Nujeen’s disability in more detail, which helped me better understand what she went through. I wish there were more photographs of the camps Nujeen and Nasrine were placed in and more photographs of their journey.

My Different Life

I’m 16, a year younger than Nujeen, but I can’t relate to the things that she witnessed and experienced. I am more worried about school and whether or not I want to attend college after I graduate. I’m used to being able to walk through the streets of New York or anywhere in this country without having to worry if a bomb will drop nearby.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are 21.3 million people in the world who are refugees; they have fled their countries to get away from war. 51% are children. They are just trying to survive each day and many don’t have food, a safe enough place to live, or the chance to go to school. This book made me realize how much I take for granted as an American.

Before reading Nujeen’s story, I would hear about the bombings in Syria in the news but I didn’t pay much attention. Now I am more interested. Watching the recent destruction of Aleppo by President Assad’s government forces made me sad. I thought of Nujeen’s photos and description of her city with its domed buildings, markets selling spices and carpets, and lots of life. The city is now ashes and rubble. I am glad she got out in time. You also learn her parents and other family are safely living in Turkey.

I recommend this book so other kids can see what young refugees are going through. Some people criticize Syrian refugees and don’t want them to come here. But this book shows that we need to help them. They just want a safe way of life.

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(NYC-2017-03-17)

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