Fleeing Syria in a wheelchair - the story of Nujeen Mustafa

20 June 2018

This story was originally published on our April 2017 newsletter

Following a hearing on refugees with disabilities in 2017, Nujeen Mustafa, a young refugee with disabilities, talked with us about their experience.

Special thanks to Human Rights Watch for putting us in contact with her.

Fleeing Syria in a wheelchair

My name is Nujeen Mustafa and I am 18 years old. I am from Syria and I grew up in Aleppo. When the war started, we could not evacuate easily because of my disability, particularly as we were living on the 5th floor of a building with no elevator. I felt like I was a barrier for the safety of my family. Everybody was trying to be strong for me. It was very stressful and depressing. Our worst fear was that the army would break into the city and that we wouldn’t be able to leave after that, so we fled. It turned out to be a wise decision. We first fled to Turkey and in August 2015, crossed the Mediterranean sea, got to Greece and from there to Germany.

‘Why did you bring her?’, people wondered with surprise and shock. There was even a debate whether we should bring my wheelchair on the boat because it would be too heavy. I was told I was the first person in wheelchair to arrive in Greece. Camps are hastily built and nobody expects that people with disabilities will be coming.

The camp in Moria in Lesbos, Greece, was not accessible so I had to change camps. But everyone who arrives in Lesbos must go to Moria first. I was lucky not to stay there long. Many other people with disabilities have to stay there much longer than me. As a refugee with disability you have to be a good “bladder holder”, as you don’t find many accessible toilets. For example, I couldn't use the toilets in Moria because there were no ramps. The terrain was also very bumpy and I got bruises. People think you’re sitting comfortable in your wheelchair doing nothing. As a matter of fact, it really hurts. If there was a slope, I was afraid to roll out of my wheelchair. We also had to sleep outdoors on cardboard boxes.

Like all people with disabilities, I am often told that I can’t do anything, but so far I have proven everyone wrong. Refugees with disabilities, like all other people, deserve to have access to services, like toilets and showers in the camps. These are simple things. People with disabilities should be considered in conflict situation, as well as in normal daily life. Our needs are not different in daily life than in conflict. I feel lucky that I now have a normal life in Germany. I go to school and I can dream of my future again. But there are still so many other refugees with disabilities in camps facing the same barriers to access even basic services. They should not be forgotten or ignored.

Nujeen Mustafa


Nujeen wrote a book in collaboration with journalist Christina Lamb: "Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair" . You can purchase it through the usual online and physical retailers (for example, Amazon )

You can also watch her talk "I Am Not a Number: A Refugee's Tale " on TedxExeter on May 2017 below (English subtitles only)

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