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Nujeen Mustafa syrische Migrantin
Image: picture-alliance/PIXSELL/Z. Lukunic

A Syrian refugee's arduous escape in a wheelchair

Nina Niebergall
March 30, 2017

Nujeen Mustafa can’t walk, nevertheless the young Syrian woman fled to Germany. Now she confronts EU politicians with the situation of disabled refuguees. Nina Niebergall reports from Brussels.


In a room full of politicians, human rights activists and journalists, all eyes are on Nujeen Mustafa. The fate of the 18-year-old Syrian woman moved the world two years ago. Back then, she fled together with her sisters across the Mediterranean sea to Germany, despite being in a wheelchair. This week, she told the European Parliament about Syria, her escape and her new life in Germany.

"Experiencing a war as a a young person is by no means a nice thing,” Nujeen began her story in fluent English. It was all the more nerve-wracking for her that her family could not be brought to safety because of her.

Nujeen is Kurdish and grew up with her siblings in Aleppo. As more bombs fell on her home country and the terrorist organization "Islamic State" approached closer, the young woman observed how more and more Syrians were making their way to Europe. Nujeen recalled how the moment had come that her brothers said to her "You must flee, or it will soon be too late."

'My wheelchair was a burden'

Nujeen and her sister travelled to Turkey, where they went into a rubber dinghy that would take them to the Greek island of Lesbos. "My wheelchair was a burden," Nujeen said. She feared she would have to throw it overboard off the boat to reduce the vessel's weight. By the end of the journey it wasn't necessary, the 18-year old remembered.

"But the hardest part was still before me." She spoke about the refugee camps along the Balkan route and how difficult it was to meet even the most basic of needs. "It is a sad fact that for some people in the 21st century toilets are still a luxury," she said.

Belgien Brüssel EU - Veranstaltung im europäischen Parlament mit Nujeen Mustafa
Nujeen Mustafa speaking in the European ParliamentImage: Human Rights Watch

There experiences reflect those of many of the refugees who are traumatized, chronically sick or have a disability and take upon themselves the arduous journey to Europe. Activists of the Human Rights Watch organization told of Ali, an eight-year-old from Afghanistan, who was now stranded in Greece. Traumatized by experiences in his home country, Ali can't move his legs anymore and also suffers from a learning disability, Emina Cerinovic from Human Rights Watch reported. "His parents only option was to put him in diapers again at eight years old."

Another story is that of a deaf man who couldn't protect himself from the bombs in Syria because he couldn't hear the sirens. He fled from his situation only a little later to land in the Greek refugee camps. There he could hardly understand what was going around him. Nobody cared about hearing aids.

Where is the money going?

People with disabilities make up around 15 percent of the total population. The proportion of disabled people who are fleeing is still unknown. Human rights organizations are trying to hold authorities accountable who do not register these people as needing special help. Human Rights Watch staff and the European Disability Forum have raised a litany of allegations: it is particularly difficult for asylum seekers and people with disabilities to gain access to accommodation, sanitation and health care and they rarely get any psychological counseling.

They therefore have addressed the EU politicians with the question: Why do refugees not get the help they need, despite the considerable resources made available by Brussels for their care?

Belgien Brüssel EU - Veranstaltung im europäischen Parlament mit Nujeen Mustafa
Member of EU parliament Bonifei and EU Commissioner Stylianides promise more engagement towards disabled refugeesImage: Human Rights Watch

The European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides, gave an explanation at the meeting. He reported that the European Commission gave over  125 million euros to the Greek government. Almost 370 millions euros went to aid organizations, among them the the refugees aid organization of the United Nations. "We have many challenges before us, especially on the Greek islands," Sylianides admitted. Therefore, a further 250 million Euros were to be given to Greece. The Commission was also in daily contact with Greek authorities to provide disabled-friendly accommodation, barrier-free showers, and liquid food, he said.

'Too little, too late'           

"We have to have stricter controls on who gets the money," Brando Benifei said. He is an Italian who sits with the Social Democrats in the European Parliament. "Obviously, the Greek government has to cooperate better with EU authorities so that the money reaches all the refugees," he added.

However,  Benifei does not absolve the EU from its responsibility: "Unfortunately today we have an EU that reacts too little and too late."

The approximately 50,000 refugees, who are stranded on the Greek islands and are waiting to be allocated to other EU countries can attest to this. Lately, Austria has threatened to completely withdraw itself out of the 2015 relocation program. The accusation from Vienna is that while Austria has already taken a high number of refugee proportionally to its population, other EU states have not fulfilled their duty. According to European Commission figures, Germany has only let around 3,000 people in the country in 2017 as a part of the relocation program. In reality, Berlin has obliged to take in 24,400 refugees. Altogether only 15,000 refugees have been distributed.

A small change

Ultimately it is those not present at the table who can change anything: the member states of the European Union. This reminds Nujeen Mustafa of a simple fact: "If you do not want these people to suffer, you should not hold them there for so long."

"I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones," the young Syrian says.  She is very thankful for the fact that she can report her experiences to the European Parliament. "My goal is what I have said here, to make a small change - not only for refugees with disabilities, but for all the other migrants," she adds.

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