Alison Sweeney: Nujeen Mustafa is a remarkable girl from Syria who braved odds to find a new life in Europe
She has profoundly affected my life, and is changing the world with her smile, courage and inspiring story
Editor’s Note: Alison Sweeney, an actress, producer and director, starred in “Days of our Lives” and currently stars in the “Murder She Baked” TV movie franchise. She is also author of numerous books, including the upcoming novel “Opportunity Knocks.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Recently, I received a few tweets regarding a story on a news website. I clicked on the link and learned about Nujeen Mustafa, a remarkable 16-year-old girl from Syria who braved incredible odds to try to find a new life for herself in Europe.
Listening to Nujeen describe her journey, you can’t help but be affected by her plight. Halfway through the brief video, the reporter, impressed by her command of the English language, asks how she learned to speak so fluently. She reveals that she learned English by watching her favorite show, “Days of our Lives.” In an instant, she transforms from a girl with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair fleeing a war-torn country to a teenager, gushing about her favorite soap opera characters.
I couldn’t believe what I heard.
You see, I played Sami Brady on “Days of our Lives” for almost 22 years. I started as a teenager, and because my character was a troublemaker (to say the least), I often found myself having to answer for my character’s outrageous behavior to dedicated viewers.
Over the years, I’ve learned so much about the amazing people who would give an hour of their time every day to tune in to the trials and tribulations of good (and not-so-good) citizens of Salem.
In 1993, when I joined the cast, I met people on the street. Fans would share how they grew up watching the show with their parents or grandparents. Kids who were named after main characters on the show would share how their own stories helped them through tough times in school or through the loss of a loved one.
But what I didn’t realize was the extent to which the show provided comfort and an escape from reality around the world. I didn’t truly comprehend the impact of the show until the producers of John Oliver’s HBO show approached James Scott (who played EJ) and me to ask if we could reunite for a special scene just for Nujeen. I had been trying to get in touch with the journalist who interviewed Nujeen because I wanted to make contact with the brave young girl, so this opportunity was perfect.
Oliver’s producers wanted to offer insights on the humanity behind a politicized struggle. I loved the piece but never anticipated the flood of response. So many news outlets recounted Nujeen’s story and the scene we played out for her. It clearly sparked something in a lot of people.
A reporter showed our scene to Nujeen soon after it aired. As is only possible with today’s social media, very soon a fan tweeted me a link to a story featuring Nujeen’s reaction. I was so touched by Nujeen’s genuine joy.
A few days ago, I was able to finally speak with Nujeen on the phone. It is really hard for me to put into words how it felt talking with her. She didn’t really want to discuss what she had been through. I asked her what she thought when she saw the ocean for the first time and she laughed, saying it was beautiful. While she shared with me a few things that were tough, it was what she didn’t say that affected me. She had no interest in dwelling on the negative.
Nujeen wanted to squeal about Sami and EJ, she wanted to tell me about her favorite scenes and how devastated she was when EJ died. She brushed aside the idea that she learned to read and write on her own because she wasn’t allowed to go to school. She told me that I taught her to speak English. I apologized for all the curse words.
I found out later she’s been using her language skills to help others from her country communicate in the refugee camps. This incredibly bright girl, who had never been allowed a formal education in Syria, conquered the Internet in a matter of days upon arriving in Germany. She joined Twitter and posted a YouTube video in which she shared her reaction to our conversation and she used it as an opportunity to wish strength, courage and inspiration to others.
Nujeen has profoundly affected my life. As the mother of two young children, I cannot fathom the struggles she has faced in her short lifetime. She told me that when she was sad or scared, watching “Days” would always brighten her. I cannot begin to imagine what those words mean to someone in her shoes. She had me laughing about how angry and emotional my character often was and promised that even though she was going to have to watch a new show to learn German, “Days” would always be her favorite.
She talked of leaving her house every night because she did not own a TV, to watch “Days” somewhere else. I was moved to tears when she didn’t understand why I kept thanking her for sharing her story with me.
Nujeen has inspired so many of us because she continues to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds and she does it with a smile on her face. I recently saw a quote that embodies her spirit, “Use your smile to change the world. Don’t let the world change your smile.”
She changed me, and is changing the world with her smile.