I haven’t picked a book of the month for quite some time but I have come across one that I think everyone should take the time to read this January as we kick off 2017. Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair, was a surprise gift in my Christmas stocking this year and though it is a newly published memoir I hadn’t yet heard about it, in spite of all the book blogs, and publishers I follow! The co-author Christina Lamb who has also written alongside Malala Yousafzai , I personally think, does a brilliant job of keeping Nujeen’s voice, tone, and personality ever present throughout these 274 pages. That’s right only 274 pages, not a lot by which to tell of such a harrowing journey, fraught with terror and uncertainty.
The structure of the novel does so much to keep the reader apprised of the 3593 miles that Nujeen and her sister Nasrine are undertaking, breaking the plot into chapters centered around their travel through a specific country or from border to border. However, nothing is able to truly encompass the probably countless hours they spent simply waiting, completely unsure of whether they would be able to continue on to complete their escape from a war ravaged country, or whether they would be turned back at each border. Nujeen is incredibly honest but also sardonically upbeat in many of these situations, leaving the reader to wonder whether her dry humourous tone is a sort of survival tactic, t keep the trauma of the situation at bay.
To think that this 16 year old girl in a wheelchair is being separated from her parents, from the single room that she basically occupied all of her life, and is suddenly thrust forward into this unknown world, crossing numerous borders, having to take trains, and walk through muddy fields, mountainous regions and travel in a questionable dinghy across an ocean strait, it is uncanny to think that Nujeen was not petrified, or should have been. And maybe she was, but it is very clear to us as readers that she is a logical thinker, she knows that this is her shot at freedom, at safety, and she doesn’t let her fears and anxiety stop her. She is resilient and spurred ever forward by her brave, brave sister Nasrine, who I am sure, has had her fair share of feeling hopeless and terrified. Her ability to preserve Nujeen’s innocence is probably what keeps Nujeen’s fighting spirit alive and well, it is the only criticism I have of this novel that Nasrine is not heard from more. Yes she is not the girl in the wheelchair, but she is a 26 year old refugee, travelling alone as a young woman, with no shelter or guarantees that anyone will care about her plight.
To read this novel is to hear loud and clear the shout of another human being saying, “I just want a shot at a life, at a good and successful and free life.” But this book also allows the reader to understand from a firsthand perspective, how complex the situation in Syria is, and to also understand that there is not necessarily a good side or a bad side, but rather a tremendous amount of innocent civilians caught in between.
As the novel comes to a close, Nujeen is describing her new life in Cologne, where she is going to school, and learning to do things on her, even going away on a school trip. She also describes the crimes committed by some men, not all of whom are refugees, but the ensuing hate that is spewed forth in retaliation makes her feel all the more that still her life is uncertain, even in Europe. It would do us some good to listen to Nujeen’s words, as she says that she travelled all those miles to live a better life, not to end up in a place that will also look to violence when they are confronted with people they do not understand or mistrust, much in the same way the Syrians treated the Kurds for thousands of years.
We in the western world I am certain, do not want to see our society divided into pitiful groups looking to harness hate and exclude or attack other innocent lives. We are first and foremost human beings, and that is, as Nujeen says, a reason to hear her story.