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Evarist Bartolo

Not a statistic

A lot of people from Aleppo were killed. Residents had wrongly assumed the fighting would remain confined to other parts of the country

evarist_bartolo
Evarist Bartolo
28 June 2017, 7:30am
We had seen the pictures on television and on the internet. The beautiful cities of Syria reduced to rubble and millions leaving their homes
We had seen the pictures on television and on the internet. The beautiful cities of Syria reduced to rubble and millions leaving their homes
“I want to be an astronaut and I want to find an alien. Oh, and I want to meet the Queen” a young woman told the TV journalist from the BBC back in 2015. She was in Serbia, trying to reach her brother, who lives in Germany. You may remember Nujeen Mustafa from the news, as the girl in the wheelchair among the refugees, making a perilous journey despite many dangers. Despite being born with cerebral palsy, she had made the difficult journey to Europe from Syria.

The journalist, for once, was lost for words. The 16-year-old from Aleppo, in Syria, was upbeat as she mulled on her dangerous trip. “It was the first time on a train and on a boat” she quipped to the perplexed BBC journalist, as if she was on a school trip.

We had seen the pictures on television and on the internet. The beautiful cities of Syria reduced to rubble and millions leaving their homes. Imagine the place you live – the schools, the parks, the cinema, the hospitals – all destroyed in a matter of days. A lot of people from Aleppo were killed because they did not leave immediately. Aleppo was among the last places to have experienced violence. Residents had wrongly assumed the fighting would remain confined to other parts of the country. When the violence did reach Aleppo, it came with a vengeance.

“I am not a number, or a statistic. I am a human being,” Nujeen writes in her book ‘The Girl from Aleppo’, where she tells the harrowing story of her escape. 

The soft-spoken 16-year-old speaks almost perfect English, yet she has never spent a day in school. I found that particularly interesting, as she only attended school for the first time in Germany at 17. In Syria she lived in a fifth floor apartment with no lift, which meant she was confined to one room. Her saviour? A television set, which she watched incessantly throughout her life. Later on, an internet connection opened her horizons to quench her thirst for facts and information. 

From an educational perspective, she is quite an insight. Without going to school she learnt a second language and she was quite fluent in a good number of other subjects. She learnt English all by herself, watching Days of our Lives. There were shortcomings in this – she’s able to give you the family tree of the British Royal Family but is alien to multiplication.

Usually, books relating to war are depressing and tell a sad story. But Nujeen’s story is one of hope and determination, despite the obvious long odds. It tells the painful narrative of Syria from the eyes of a teenager who ends up in Germany. It’s a story of a society displaced, of a population without a home. Most of all it reminds us that each one of us, despite differences in language and culture, has the same aspirations – providing a home for our family, the well-being of our children and living in dignity.

Today Syria is a war ravaged country. A mother with no children. Despite Islamic State losing territory and on the edge of defeat, the future is still very uncertain. Violence has become the order of the day, and gangs and mobs, as we’ve seen in Libya, don’t perish overnight. A lot of the country’s population is dispersed around the Middle East and Europe. Many have said they want to go ‘home’, but home is not what it once used to be. 

What the story of Nujeen does is put a face to those who are often faceless. She says she looks a lot tougher than she looks. She’s an example to all of us. As she said, they are human-beings and not a number. They are not a statistic.

Evarist Bartolo is Minister of Education and Employment