Syrian refugee shoots for the stars in Nat Geo film

Wheelchair-bound Nujeen Mustafa shares her dream of exploring space

A powerful film from National Geographic tells the inspiring story of Nujeen Mustafa, a 19-year-old, wheelchair-bound, Syrian refugee who lets nothing get in the way of her big dreams.


The 100-second film, which aired as a 60-second spot during Nat Geo’s Mars series, chronicles Mustafa’s journey as she flees war-torn Syria with her sister to start a new life in Germany. Directed by Emmy Award-winning director Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale, I Think We’re Alone Now) and narrated by the protagonist herself, the film recreates Mustafa’s arduous path to freedom.


“I wasn’t supposed to see the bright side of my journey,” she explains in the voiceover. “So, I made it an adventure and discovered all sorts of new things.”


The young woman talks of the discoveries she made along the way, the best hot chocolate she’s ever had, and the boats and trains they took to travel 3,500 miles to safety.


“I wasn’t supposed to make it past Syria or Turkey or Austria. But here I am, in a classroom I was never supposed to be in,” continues Mustafa, who explains in the film that she educated herself through television when her cerebral palsy kept her from attending school in Syria. “So, imagine how I feel when people tell me I can’t be an astronaut.”


Mustafa’s determination and positive outlook on life made the project irresistible to Morano.


“Nujeen’s story was just incredible. I wanted to know her and tell her story,” the director said. “When I was young, I had big dreams, too, but I wasn’t in a disadvantaged spot the way Nujeen was, and nothing could stop her. I felt she was a person we could all learn from. The message is no matter who you are, where you’ve come from, there is a no dream too big.”


To make viewers see the story from Nujeen’s point of view, Morano said she tried to keep the camera at Nujeen’s eye height as much as possible when shooting. The director said it was important “to experience the wonder she experienced in each new place she went to.”


The film was shot in Portugal, a country that showcased the different landscapes Nujeen encountered during her voyage.


A director and cinematographer who works in features, TV, and commercials, Morano said the film represents her ideal kind of brand work.


“This type of thing, where you aren’t selling a product but want to evoke emotion, that’s what I’m always trying to do as a director. We are just trying to make people feel things,” she said. “If you can use the medium to affect the audience, maybe even change their point of view, that’s what I’m trying to do in my movies as well.


“Even in a short piece like this, you can really make an impact on people and send a message you strongly believe in. You can inspire people, or change their mind about something. That’s the most powerful tool we have.”