Teen escaped Syria in a wheelchair

For Nujeen Mustafa, a teenager born with cerebral palsy, life in war-torn Syria was mostly limited to her fifth-floor apartment. But when the fight between ISIS militants and US-backed Kurdish troops came within miles of her home in 2014, Mustafa had little choice but to run for her life.

Mustafa’s grueling, 16-month trek is detailed in “Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair,” a 304-page memoir published last week by HarperCollins. Beginning in western Turkey, Mustafa and co-author Christina Lamb detail every twist and turn along the way, from across the Mediterranean to Greece, then through Macedonia to Serbia and Hungary before finally reaching Germany.

“It was the first time I had seen the sea,” Mustafa recalls in the book. “The first time for everything — traveling on a plane, in a train, leaving my parents, staying in a hotel and now going in a boat! Back in Aleppo I had barely ever left our fifth-floor apartment.”

The odyssey toward a new life that followed was especially difficult for Mustafa, 17, who was born 40 days prematurely and whose legs have a “mind of their own.”

“They kick up when I am speaking, my ankles turn inwards, my toes point downwards, my heels point up and I can’t walk,” the book reads. “It’s like I am forever stuck on my tiptoes.”

Mustafa somehow managed to maintain a sense of optimism throughout her journey as one of more than 1.2 million people from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia into Europe last year, the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

“I was one of them,” the book reads. “I hate the word refugee more than any word in the English language … What it really means is a second-class citizen with a number scrawled on your hand or printed on a wristband, who everyone wishes would somehow go away.”

Determined not to become a victim, Mustafa traveled with her older sister, Nasrine, who pushed Nujeen’s wheelchair across every type of rough terrain, eventually reaching Germany, where her older brother had lived and worked as a film director. Mustafa ultimately found a new place to call home in July, some 3,593 miles away from her birthplace of Manbij in northern Syria: Cologne, Germany.

“Coming to Germany was my dream,” the book reads. “Maybe I won’t be an astronaut. Maybe I will never learn to walk. But there are lots of good things in this society and I’d like to put them with good things from my society and make a Nujeen cocktail.”

Still in her adopted home, Mustafa told the Guardian on Monday that she’s attending a school for children with disabilities in a suburb of Cologne, where she initially struggled before quickly picking up German. Becoming an astronaut is still her lifelong dream, even if that’s a long shot.

“But if it doesn’t work out, I still have my imagination,” Mustafa told the newspaper, adding that she wants to attend college in Germany at some point.

But Mustafa is still waiting for her resident permit nearly a year after arriving in the country. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently announced that all refugees who arrived last year would be registered by the end of last month. That would leave Mustafa only three months — when she turns 18 — to apply for her parents to be reunited with her there, according to the Guardian, citing the Geneva Convention.

When asked by the Guardian how she felt about that wait, the self-admitted impatient Mustafa replied: “I have become a waiting expert … they need to do something so that the German process of applications might be as fast as the German cars!”

“Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair” is available now.