Nujeen Mustafa’s Journey from Syria to Literary Stage

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

With the help of Christina Lamb, co-writer of ‘I Am Malala’, Syrian refugee Nujeen Mustafa brings her story to the world stage and to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
HarperCollins executives host a tea reception for author Nujeen Mustafa, who is pictured here with: Chantal Restivo Alessi (Chief Digital Officer and Executive Vice President, International, HarperColins), Ananth Padmanabhan (CEO, HarperCollins India), Nisreen Mustafa (sister of Nujeen Mustafa), David Roth-Ey (Group Digital Director and Publisher, HarperCollins UK), Brian Murray (President and CEO), Jans-Joris Keijzer (Managing Director, HarperCollins Holland), and Thomas Beckmann (Managing Director, HarperCollins Germany).

HarperCollins executives host a tea reception for author Nujeen Mustafa, who is pictured here with: Chantal Restivo Alessi (Chief Digital Officer and Executive Vice President, International, HarperColins), Ananth Padmanabhan (CEO, HarperCollins India), Nisreen Mustafa (sister of Nujeen Mustafa), David Roth-Ey (Executive Publisher, 4th Estate & William Collins ), Brian Murray (President and CEO), Jans-Joris Keijzer (Managing Director, HarperCollins Holland), and Thomas Beckmann (Managing Director, HarperCollins Germany).

Much more from Frankfurt Book Fair 2016 is in our Publishing Perspectives Show Daily editions.Download them all here, free of charge.


By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
It was the first time Nujeen Mustafa had seen the sea, and she and her sisters had found the way there by following the instructions of a smuggler on Google Maps. She would cross the eight miles of sea between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos in a refugee boat.
“We had paid $1,500 each instead of the usual $1,000 to have a dinghy just for our family, but it seemed others would be in our boat. We would be thirty-eight in total—twenty-seven adults and eleven children. Now we were here there was nothing we could do—we couldn’t go back and people said the smugglers used their knives and cattle prods on those who changed their minds.”

A Syrian refugee from Aleppo, Mustafa has been written up many times since her astonishing 3,500-hundred mile journey from home to safety in Wesseling, Germany: in a wheelchair. She has cerebral palsy. And the overland route she and her siblings had to take traces amazing arcs on a map: Syria to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Hungary to Slovenia to Austria to Germany.

Olivia Snaije interviews author Nujeen Mustafa on Thursday at the Publishing Perspectives Stage

Olivia Snaije interviews author Nujeen Mustafa
on Thursday at the Publishing Perspectives Stage

She was interviewed yesterday afternoon (October 20) in a “Meet the Author” conversation on the Publishing Perspectives Stage with our Paris-based correspondent Olivia Snaije. Mustafa also appeared yesterday morning at the Open Stage in the Agora, in an interview with Newsweek magazine.

Our quote is from the very first part of Mustafa’s book, Nujeen: One Girl’s Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair, and from an early section of her ordeal. It’s in the same early lines that you learn that her aunt and uncle “were shot dead by Daesh snipers” at a funeral in the city of Kobane—“a day I don’t want to think about.”

Mustafa’s book as told to Sunday Times journalist Christina Lamb was released last month by HarperCollins in nine languages including German, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese. Lamb is also the co-author of I Am Malala with Malala Yousafszai, and her fluency in portraying the resilience and determination of these young survivors is clearly on view again in this new book.

As chatty as any 17-year-old, she jumps into an after-school interview with Publishing Perspectives with happy, effusive charm.

Quickly, we get to the question of the profound difference between her life today in a suburban setting near Cologne and the stark trials she has faced down to be there.

“I feel like Alice in Wonderland,” she tells us with a giggle. “But I still recall the sensations, the feelings I had” on her long journey. “It doesn’t yet feel far enough away yet to seem like a dream.”

“I laugh at the reactions people have,” she confides, “about my being in a wheelchair.” Known far more widely for the sheer feat of her escape from Syria than for her medical condition, she says, she can still shock people who don’t realize until they meet her that she doesn’t walk. “I sometimes forget myself,” she says.

“But you know, I think I’m destined to be different from everyone else.”

In Aleppo, she says, there were many happy times. She’s a football fan and adores tennis, comparing notes excitedly about Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, and Roger Federer. She’s keen to know more about the rising Austrian champion Dominic Thiem.

“There were happy and homey times,” she says. “And I was 12,” she says, when “we began to get surrounded by ISIS. I didn’t know if I was going to live again another day. I thought the helicopter would just come by and drop a bomb on us when we were asleep.”

This continual fear of attack, she says, was the hardest thing for her to handle. “Our rooms at home would vibrate” with the concussions of explosions at times.

Although now she says she feels very much a part of her new community and seen as her own person, she talks movingly of “how they look at you, how you’re seen” when you’re a refugee.

“Sometimes you’re detained,” she says, as she was in what she calls the worst part of her journey in Slovenia. “You’re in a police station, or being interrogated. You feel like an epidemic. Like they’re trying to protect their people from you. It’s the attitude. People thought wrong of me, but we are peaceful people, we don’t want to hurt anybody.”

She’s been in Germany for a bit over a year, and she’s still awed by the fact that a book has been created about her. The connection was made through a BBC News crew at the Hungarian border with Serbia. As things came together, she’s says, “I met Christina and I knew who Malala was, of course, so I knew this was huge.” There’s not a trace of irony in her voice when she says, “They really threw the bombshell on me when they said they wanted to do a book.”

And Nujeen Mustafa will be very much in her element in Frankfurt this week. “I love writers,” she says, “because I think they’re very deep people who love expressing and writing down ideas. Christina was a wonderful companion. And the idea that somebody would care about just a girl who’s 16.”

“But this was my opportunity to do a good thing. I’ve always looked for a way to make the world a better place.”

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.