The Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forges Award celebrates the valor of people who put their lives on the line to protect the dignity and rights of others. Human Rights Watch collaborates with these courageous activists to create a world in which people live free of violence, discrimination, and oppression.

© Chris Floyd

In January 2014, when Nujeen Mustafa was 16, she began a 5,600-kilometer journey from Syria to Germany in a steel wheelchair. She has since become a powerful advocate for the rights of refugees and for people with disabilities, sharing the harrowing story of her journey to move hearts and change policies.

Mustafa was born with cerebral palsy, unable to walk without assistance. In her home city of Aleppo, Syria, she never attended school. She taught herself English by watching American soap operas.

As the forces of the Islamic State (known as ISIS) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad escalated their attacks on civilians, Mustafa and her family fled to Turkey. Together with her sister, Mustafa soon embarked on a grueling 16-month journey by foot, boat and bus. They crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Greece and struggled northward through Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, finally arriving in Germany.

Throughout the ordeal, Mustafa refused to give in to despair or see herself as a passive victim. As she told a BBC reporter in a now-viral video: “You should fight to get what you want in this world.”

Mustafa’s account was chronicled in a book co-authored by a British journalist and author, Christina Lamb—The Girl from Aleppo: Nujeen’s Escape from War to Freedom. Her persuasive speaking has also encouraged international disability reform efforts. 

Having fled Syria to Europe in her wheelchair when she was only 16, Nujeen embodies a message of hope, resilience and inclusion that we desperately need in the world right now.

Shantha Rau Barriga

Director, Disability Rights Division

In a unique partnership with Human Rights Watch, the European Disability Forum and the Norwegian Refugee Council, Mustafa urged senior policymakers in the European Union to re-evaluate their policies regarding people with disabilities in humanitarian crises. The EU commissioner for humanitarian assistance has announced new measures to ensure that the delivery of humanitarian aid meets the needs of people with disabilities.

Human Rights Watch honors Nujeen Mustafa for her tireless advocacy promoting the rights of refugees and people with disabilities.