Book Excerpts · Books · International

This Is What It’s Like to Be Smuggled in a Wheelchair across Continents in Overloaded Refugee Boats

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Nujeen Mustafa with Christina Lamb

FROM the beach we could see the island of Lesbos – and Europe. The sea stretched either side as far as you could see and it was not rough, it was quiet, sparkling in the sun and flecked only by the smallest of white caps dancing on top of the waves. The island did not look too far off, rising from the sea like a rocky loaf. But the grey dinghies were low in the water, weighed down with as many lives as the smugglers could pack in.

It was the first time I had seen the sea. The first time for everything – travelling 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.

We had heard from those who had gone before that on a fine summer day like this with a working motor a dinghy takes just over an hour to cross the strait. The problem was that the motors were often old and cheap and strained for power with loads of fifty or sixty people so took three or four hours to do the five-mile journey. On a rainy night when waves reach as high as ten feet, sometimes the boats never made it at all and journeys of hope ended in a watery grave.

The beach was not sandy as I had imagined but pebbly – impossible for my wheelchair. We could see we were in the right place from a ripped cardboard box printed with the words ‘Inflatable Rubber Dinghy; Made in China (Max Capacity 15 pax)’ as well as a trail of discarded belongings along the shore like a kind of refugee flotsam and jetsam. There were toothbrushes and biscuit wrappers, abandoned backpacks and assorted clothes and shoes. Jeans and T-shirts tossed out because there was no room in the boat and smugglers make you travel as light as possible. A pair of grey high-heeled mules with fluffy black pom-poms – a crazy thing to have brought on this journey. A child’s tiny pink sandal decorated with a plastic rose. A boy’s trainers. And a large floppy teddy bear that must have been hard for someone to leave behind. All this stuff made this beautiful place look like trash which made me sad and one of my principles is not to be sad.

We had been in the olive groves all night after being dropped off on the cliff road by the smuggler’s mini-bus. From there we had to walk down the hill to the shore which was about a mile or so. That doesn’t sound much but it is a very long way in a wheelchair over a rough track with only your sister to push and a hot Greek sun beating down and making the sweat run in your eyes. There was a road zigzagging down the hill which would have been much easier but we couldn’t walk along that as we might be spotted and arrested by the Turkish gendarmerie who could put us in a detention centre or even send us back.

I was with two of my four older sisters – Najma, but she had four small children of her own to handle, and my closest sister Nasrine who always looks after me and is as beautiful as her name which means white flower that only grows on the hills of Kurdistan. Also with us were some cousins whose parents – my aunt and uncle – had been shot dead by ISIS snipers in July when they went to a funeral in Kobane, a day I don’t want to think about.

The way was bumpy and annoyingly Nasrine pulled me backwards so I only got occasional glimpses of the sea. When I did it was sparkling blue. Everyone got very hot and bothered and I gripped the chair so hard that my arms hurt and my bottom bruised from all the bumping but I didn’t say anything.

As with everywhere we had passed though I told them some local information I had gathered. I was excited that on top of the hill above us was the ancient town of Assos which had a ruined temple to the goddess Athena and was where the famous philosopher Aristotle once lived. He even started a school of philosophy on the cliff teaching that the human mind was a blank slate for ideas to be imprinted on. Then the Persians attacked and made the philosophers flee and Aristotle ended up in Macedonia as tutor to a young Alexander the Great. St Paul the apostle also passed through on his own journey to Lesbos from Syria. As always my sisters didn’t seem very interested.

I gave up trying to inform them and watched the seagulls having fun gliding on thermals and making noisy loops high in the sky. How I wished I could fly.

Nasrine kept checking the phone our brother Mustafa had bought us for the journey to make sure we were following the Google map coordinates given to us by the smuggler. Yet, when we finally we got to the shore, it turned out we were not in the right place. Every smuggler has their own ‘point’ – we had coloured strips of fabric tied round our wrists to identify us as belonging to a particular one – and we were at the wrong point.

Where we needed to be wasn’t far along the beach but when we got to the end there was a sheer cliff in the way. So we’d ended up having to walk up and down another rugged hill to reach the right point on the shore. Those mountains there were like Hell. If you slipped and fell into the sea you’d definitely be dead. It was so rocky that I couldn’t be pushed or pulled but had to be carried. My cousins teased me, ‘You are the Queen, Queen Nujeen!’

By the time we got to the right beach the sun was setting, an explosion of pink, purple as if a child was squiggling coloured crayons across the sky. From the hills above I heard the gentle tinkle of goat-bells.

We spent the night in the olive grove. Once the sun had gone the temperature dropped suddenly and they wouldn’t let us make a fire because it might attract police. Some people tore bits of cardboard from the dinghy cartons to try and cover themselves. It felt like one of those movies where a group go camping and something terrible happens. But this was probably the longest day I ever had and I was so tired I slept most of the night.

***

The smugglers had promised we would leave early in the morning and by dawn we were all ready on the beach, our phones all wrapped in plastic to protect them on the crossing, just waiting for the signal that the Turkish coastguards were not around. There were several other groups waiting.

We had paid $1500 each instead of the usual $1000 to have a dinghy just for our family but it turned out that others would be in our boat, maybe forty in all. Now we were here there was nothing we could do – we couldn’t go back and we’d heard how the smugglers used knives and cattle prods on those who changed their minds.

As morning broke we watched the first boats go out. Two set off more or less straight but two were going in all directions. The boats didn’t have pilots – what happened was the smugglers let one of the refugees travel for half price or for free if he drove the boat even though none of them had any experience. ‘It’s just like riding a motorbike,’ they claimed. My uncle was going to be driving our boat.

Some gun the motor to get half way across to Greek waters as fast as possible and they burn out the motor. Sometimes the engines don’t have enough fuel. If that happens the Turkish coastguard would catch you and bring you back. In Café Sinbad in Izmir we’d met a family from Aleppo who had tried to cross six times. We didn’t have money to keep trying.

The sky was cloudless and close by I could see that the sea wasn’t just one colour, the uniform blue of pictures and my imaginings, but almost turquoise close by the shore then a darker blue then indigo near the island.

I knew the sea only from National Geographic documentaries and now I felt like part of one. I felt really wired and couldn’t understand why was everyone nervous. For me it was like the biggest adventure!

Other kids were running and collecting pebbles of different colours. One of them gave me one the shape of a dove, flat and grey with a white marble vein running through it. It was cool to the touch and worn smooth by the sea. It’s not always easy for me to hold things in my awkward fingers but I wasn’t letting go of that.

There were people from Syria like us as well as from Iraq, Morocco and Afghanistan speaking in a language we didn’t understand. Some people swapped stories but most didn’t say much. They didn’t need to. To be leaving all you knew and had built up in your own country to make this dangerous and uncertain journey, it must be bad.

The day got hotter and no one came for us. We hadn’t expected to be here so long and were hungry and thirsty which was ironic with so much water in front of us. My cousins went to try and find water for the children but there was nothing nearby.

As the afternoon came, the waves started to get higher, making a slapping sound on the shore. None of us wanted to cross at night as we’d heard stories of kind of pirates on jet-skis who board boats in the dark to steal motors and valuables of refugees.

Finally around 4 p.m. they said the coastguards were changing guard so we could take advantage to go. I looked again at the sea. A mist was coming down and the cry of the seagulls no longer seemed so joyful. A dark shadow lay over the rocky island. Some call that crossing rihlat al moot or the route of death. Either it would deliver us to Europe or swallow us up.

For the first time I felt scared.

Watch a video message from Nujeen Mustafa here:


Excerpted with permission from Nujeen, now available in paperback in bookstores. Available online here: http://amzn.to/2emSbRf

About the authors:

Born with cerebral palsy, 16-year-old Nujeen Mustafa has spent her life in a wheelchair. She had little formal education in Syria but taught herself English by watching US soap operas. In 2014 her home town of Kobane was at the centre of fierce fighting between Isis militants and US-backed Kurdish forces, forcing her family to flee first across the border into Turkey and then further into Europe, where they currently live, in Germany.

Christina Lamb is a world-renowned correspondent and a bestselling author. Her co-authored I Am Malala has sold over 100,000 copies.

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